When Wisconsin and Iowa take the field Saturday, two of the best defensive lines in the Big Ten will be on display. The UW juggernaut that features Bronko Nagurski award finalist Erasmus James and preseason All-American Anttaj Hawthorne has dazzled Badger nation all season, but this week’s battle over the newly created Heartland Trophy will give the UW faithful their first look at another vaunted unit, the Iowa front seven.
Led by defensive end Matt Roth, who shares the conference lead in sacks (7) with James, Iowa’s front four has garnered national acclaim, leaving many analysts undecided as to which conference power presents the most imposing defensive front.
While James and Co. will try to answer that question on the field, Wisconsin offensive line coach Jim Hueber believes his unit is ready to meet the Hawkeyes head on. With seniors Dan Buenning, Jonathan Clinkscale, Morgan Davis and Mike Lorenz playing their final regular season game in a Wisconsin uniform, Hueber’s veteran line will not hold anything back.
“We’ll show up,” Hueber said. “I know there’s some conversation about what defensive line will be the best defensive line on the field. I don’t know (which line is better), but we’ll show up. We’ll be there to play.”
After the Michigan State debacle, in which the Badgers twice failed to punch it in from less than a yard shy of the goal line, Hueber’s crew will have a shot at redemption against the Big Ten’s leading red zone defense. Iowa’s heralded front seven has allowed the opposition to score on just 19 of 31 red zone opportunities (61.3%) this season, the stingiest mark in the conference.
The Hawkeyes also boast the top run defense in the Big Ten, surrendering just 95.1 yards per game on the ground. However, Norm Parker’s squad showed some chinks in its armor this past week, allowing Minnesota to rack up 337 yards on the ground. Marion Barber III and Laurence Maroney each rushed for more than 150 yards, with Maroney scoring three touchdowns and posting 8.2 yards per carry.
With both units coming off uncharacteristically futile performances in the past week, the opposing lines each enter Saturday’s showdown with something to prove. While Hueber’s unit will look to establish itself inside the 20, the Iowa defensive front hopes to return to its usual proficiency behind a trio of returning All-Big Ten selections. Roth and linebacker Abdul Hodge each garnered first-team all-conference honors last season, while linebacker Chad Greenway was a second-team All-Big selection in 2003.
Each member of the Iowa defensive triad brings a different element to the field for the Hawkeyes. At 6-foot-4, 270-pounds, Roth uses his quickness to break into the backfield and terrorize opposing quarterbacks.
“He’s a penetrator,” UW head coach Barry Alvarez said. “He can run around you rather than run through you or hit a gap charge and get penetration more so than those bigger guys who might get some movement and are hard to move.”
Greenway is the Hawkeye’s fleet-footed playmaker among the linebacker corps. The speed of the explosive junior allows him to make a play anywhere on the field.
“Greenway can really run,” Hueber said. “I think they try to cover up your linemen so nobody can get to him blocking so he can run to the ball. He makes a lot of plays sideline to sideline.”
While Greenway’s weapon is his athleticism, Hodge has mastered the mental side of the game, becoming the Hawkeye’s organizational leader.
“I think Hodge is their coach on the field,” Hueber said. “He’s the guy that gets them in the right sets. He’s the guy that makes their calls for them. And he’s the guy, the mike linebacker, he’s the guy in there taking on most of the blocks.”
Led by a trio of standouts, Iowa’s front seven presents a daunting challenge for Wisconsin’s veteran offensive line. When the Badgers and Hawkeyes face off in Iowa City, that trench battle may determine the outcome of the game.