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November 1, 2013

Inside the numbers

Saturday's Iowa-Wisconsin game may not have the all-around appeal in every phase that garners a given matchup national attention. But one aspect alone figures to be a heavyweight showdown: the Wisconsin running attack against Iowa's rush defense.

Iowa has faced a number of strong running games already this season. The results have been mixed.

Wisconsin has run well in just about every game, save for its loss at Ohio State.

Let's break down how these units have fared thus far.

The Badgers not only lead the Big Ten in rushing with an average of 296.9 yards per game - as well as a gaudy 6.9 yards-per-carry average - they stack up well against the country's elite rushing attacks.

You can make the argument that Wisconsin boasts the nation's most efficient running game - even better than that of Oregon's. Both clubs are tied for the FBS' best rushing average at 6.9 yards per carry, but the Ducks have also lost more yards on the ground (153 versus 125 for Wisconsin, though Oregon has played one more game). Then again, Oregon also has a ridiculous 38 rushing touchdowns to Wisconsin's still ultra-impressive 2.

One comparison between the two teams that surprised me is the fact that Wisconsin boasts a longer run - an 80-yard touchdown - while Oregon's longest is 71 yards for a score.

Either way, both are very good, and the fact that Wisconsin's running game is comparable to Oregon's (not in scheme, of course, but in terms of effectiveness) says all you need to know.

When you think of Badgers running backs, you typically thinking of a very particular style or mold of player: big, powerful runners that rely more on raw strength rather than breakaway speed. The guys that Wisconsin has featured in its backfield over recent years have generally fit that build, such as Ron Dayne, P.J. Hill, John Clay and Montee Ball.

This year's attack is a little different. Now, I'm not suggesting Wisconsin boasts speed in its backfield comparable to the bursts that Oregon can throw at you with speedster after speedster, but it's certainly a bit more than usual - particularly with Melvin Gordon on the patented jet sweep. James White is no slouch either.

These are two of the nation's best running backs, at least according to the numbers.

As you can see, both Gordon and White rank among the FBS leaders in yards per game. There are only two other teams that boast multiple players among the top 30: Northern Illinois with Jordan Lynch and Cameron Stingily, and BYU with Taysom Hill and Jamaal Williams. However, Wisconsin is unique because neither of its two players in the top 30 are quarterbacks, while NIU's Lynch and BYU's Hill are.

Wisconsin's runners are also efficient, particularly Gordon, who is averaging an absurd 9.5 yards per carry. If that isn't impressive enough, No. 3 option Corey Clement ranks 14th in the country at 7.4 yards per carry. How's that for depth?

In terms of raw numbers, Iowa has played two teams that have success similar to Wisconsin in terms of running the football: Northern Illinois, which ranks sixth in total rushing, and Ohio State, which ranks ninth.

Against Northern Illinois, the Hawkeyes yielded 163 yards on 42 carries to the Huskies (3.9 yards per carry) - overall a pretty solid job. This is less comparable to what they'll face against Wisconsin, though, as Lynch accounted for 22 of those carries. Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave is not a threat to run the football with -16 rushing yards this season.

As you probably haven't forgotten, the results against the Buckeyes weren't so favorable. Ohio State ran 51 times for 273 yards (5.4 yards per carry). Braxton Miller gashed the Hawkeyes from under center, racking up 102 yards on 18 carries, but it was Carlos Hyde in a traditional running back role that did even more damage, running 24 times for 149 yards. This is a little concerning for Saturday's game, though playing in Kinnick Stadium figures to help Iowa out at least a little bit.

But a good sign for the Hawkeyes is Wisconsin's performance against the lone quality run defense it faced. To be quite frank, they've matched up against only one truly elite run defense in Ohio State, and the Badgers did not fare well. They ran for a season-low 104 yards on 27 carries.

Ohio State's rush defense ranks sixth in the country at 95.9 yards per game, while Iowa will easily comprise the second-toughest run defense Wisconsin has faced, limiting teams to 128.6 yards per game on the ground, good for 24th nationally.

Granted, Iowa's defense may not possess the speed Ohio State's does - which will come in handy when tracking down Gordon in particular - but at worst the Hawkeyes are just as disciplined against the run.

Wisconsin's running game will provide an immense challenge, but it should be nothing Iowa will be overwhelmed by, provided the defense can generally fulfill its assignments.

Iowa in trophy games

While the Iowa-Wisconsin series is tied 42-42-2 all-time, Iowa holds a slight advantage since the Heartland Trophy was instituted with a 4-3 edge.

In other rivalry series:

vs. Iowa State: Iowa leads, 40-21

For Cy-Hawk Trophy: Iowa leads, 24-13

vs. Minnesota: Minnesota leads, 61-44-2

For Floyd of Rosedale: Minnesota leads, 41-36-2

vs. Nebraska: Nebraska leads, 28-12-3

For Heroes Trophy: Nebraska leads, 2-0

So in these four total series combined, Iowa is 138-152-7.

But when rivalry trophies have been on the line, the Hawkeyes are 64-59-2.



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