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Tuesday, October 19, 2010
Iowa, Wisconsin are mirror-image programs

By Adam Rittenberg

Iowa and Wisconsin will spend all week dissecting film of one another, trying to find clues that will aid in Saturday's matchup at Kinnick Stadium.

The players and coaches could save a lot of time, though, and simply look in the mirror.

"They're a smash-mouth football program, we're a smash-mouth football program," Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt said.

Kirk Ferentz
Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes have won the last two battles against the Badgers.
"They play our kind of ball," Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn said. "It's pretty much like going against our guys in practice every day."

Saturday's game won't be won with sleight of hand or exotic play calling. It's a pretty good bet that the team that blocks and tackles better will claim victory.

This is exactly how No. 15 Iowa and No. 13 Wisconsin like it.

While Michigan has gone to a full-blown spread offense and both Ohio State and Penn State have incorporated spread elements, the Hawkeyes and Badgers run pro-style systems build around the power run and the play-action pass. Boise State against Oregon, this is not.

The two defenses also are similar. Iowa's defense has some baseline rules each player must follow and few elaborate disguises. If each man does his job, the play should be stopped. Wisconsin's system is similar, in large part because Badgers head coach Bret Bielema cut his teeth at Iowa under veteran Hawkyes defensive coordinator Norm Parker.

If you like power defensive ends like Clayborn and Watt and burly running backs like Wisconsin junior John Clay and former Iowa star Shonn Greene, this is the game for you.

"They're just looking to run the ball, and we're looking to stop the run," Iowa defensive tackle Karl Klug said. "We match up pretty well."

The spotlight Saturday afternoon undoubtedly will be on the line of scrimmage. Wisconsin's offensive line comes off of a dominant performance last week against Ohio State, in which it overpowered a formidable Buckeyes defensive front in a 31-18 victory. Iowa's defense ranks sixth nationally in points allowed (13.2 ppg) and seventh against the run (83.8 ypg).

Some have billed the Badgers' front five as the nation's best offensive line. The same has been said about Iowa's defensive line. Two likely first-round draft picks match up Saturday as Clayborn goes against Wisconsin left tackle Gabe Carimi.

"We run similar schemes," Bielema said of his Badgers and the Hawkeyes. "We had a couple of [general managers] in during the course of the week last week, GMs of NFL teams. And they basically [say] 'It's so relieving to watch, come in and watch film and watch you run the football like they want to run it at the next level.'"

Bret Bielema
Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema played for the Hawkeyes and began his coaching career with Iowa.
Bielema is the strongest link between the schools.

He played defensive line for Iowa under Hayden Fry from 1989-92 and began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Hawkeyes in 1994. Bielema was elevated to linebackers coach in 1996 and spent six seasons in the role, the last three under current Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz.

Bielema "thinks the world" of Ferentz and called Parker one of his biggest influences in coaching.

He's also linked to Iowa through body art: a Tiger Hawk tattoo remains on his calf, and Iowa coaches don't hesitate to bring it up during their frequent recruiting battles with Wisconsin.

"Every time [a recruit] goes to visit there, the first thing, I can write it down to a tee, they're going to come back and say, 'Coach, can we see your tattoo?'" Bielema said. "Every Iowa coach says that to him, so I know their routine, and it's nothing surprising."

The schools share other connections as well.

When Ferentz joined Fry's staff as an assistant in 1981, Barry Alvarez served as the team's linebackers coach. Ferentz and Alvarez worked together for six years before Alvarez left for a position at Notre Dame. Three years later, both men took head-coaching jobs, Alvarez at Wisconsin and Ferentz at Maine.

Wisconsin had gone 9-36 in the four seasons before Alvarez's arrival and were in the midst of a 10-game losing streak and an 18-game winless streak against Iowa.

"When I left here in '89, it’s not that I didn't respect them, but they had really fallen on hard times," Ferentz said. "And as I was leaving here, that’s when Barry was going up there. I get back nine years later and they were clearly one of the best programs in the country.

"They’ve just done a fantastic job there. They’ve been very consistent with their efforts."

The same can be said for Iowa, which rebounded from its own lull (1998-2001) to restore itself among the Big Ten's elite.

How close are the two programs? Iowa leads the all-time series 42-41-2 after claiming the last two matchups. When the Big Ten began determining divisions for 2011 and beyond, it examined data since 1993, the year Penn State joined the league. Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State led the league in Big Ten wins during the span, but Wisconsin (79-54-3) and Iowa (71-64-1) are in the next tier.

"There are four teams in our new conference coming next year that have won national championships," Bielema said, referring to Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Nebraska. "And then the next two teams, probably by record, are us and Iowa."

Added Ferentz: "It’s nice to be involved in the party, if you can get in there. But it doesn't just happen."

Iowa and Wisconsin are so close that it contributed to them being placed in opposite divisions to achieve competitive balance. The two teams don't meet in 2011 and 2012, so Saturday's winner gets to keep the Heartland Trophy a little longer, not to mention take a step closer to the Big Ten title.

"There’s a great deal of respect, but we all want the same thing," Bielema said. "That’s what this week will be about, getting the W."