Iowa and Wisconsin have much in common when it comes to playing styles and recruiting

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A.J. Epenesa lines up against Iowa State. Photo by Jeff Yoder.

By Tyler Devine

IOWA CITY, Iowa - For nearly three decades, the Wisconsin football team has been a better version of Iowa.

Ever since Barry Alvarez rebuilt the Badger program in the early 1990's, Wisconsin has sustained a level of success that is superior to Iowa, and has done so by using a playing style and a recruiting philosophy that are both similar to what Hayden Fry used as the Iowa head coach and to what Kirk Ferentz is using now.

Wisconsin and Iowa often are compared to each other because they both feature power rushing attacks and stingy defenses, and because they often recruit many of the same players from the Midwest.

The two border rivals will square off on Saturday in the much-anticipated Big Ten opener at Kinnick Stadium with the 18th-ranked Badgers favored by 3 1/2 points.

"Kind of yes and no," Ferentz said Tuesday when asked if Iowa and Wisconsin often recruit the same players. "Barry's first visions, I think like any smart coach, you're going to try to control your state.

"But, yeah, I think we look for the same things I think probably in players. That's probably fair. As far as getting the guys, they've done a pretty good job of that."

Wisconsin has won four games in a row at Kinnick Stadium, and five of the last six games in the series. So that could give the impression that the Badgers have dominated Iowa in recruiting, but that really isn't the case.

For example, Iowa and Wisconsin both have six players in their respective starting lineups who had a scholarship offer from both schools, and that includes Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, who is from Menomonie, Wis. Both starting lineups for Saturday's game also are dominated by three-star prospects, according to rankings by Rivals.com.

The Badgers do have an edge when you combine the national average of their last five recruiting classes, which is 36th overall and 12 spots ahead of Iowa.

But Wisconsin is nowhere close to being like Alabama or Ohio State when it comes to recruiting. The Badgers recruit like a developmental program, but they win like a traditional power.

Few programs can make that claim.

Iowa flirts with elite status, but hasn't been able to sustain it like Wisconsin has for the better part of two decades.

When searching for reasons why Wisconsin has been more successful than Iowa on the field, and in recruiting, the population of each state is a good place to start.

Wisconsin had nearly double the population of Iowa in 2017 at 5.795 million compared to 3.146 million for Iowa. That has an impact on recruiting because the Wisconsin coaches traditionally have more players from instate from whom to choose.

However, neither state has enough population to fill all the recruiting needs of both programs, so they have to look elsewhere for talent. Both schools have relied heavily on the Midwest to help fill their rosters, and they both still actively recruit on the East Coast and in Florida.

Wisconsin also has recruited well in the state of Ohio, especially at receiver. Lee Evans and Chris Chambers both grew up in Ohio and would go on to become two of the greatest receivers in the history of the Wisconsin program before having long and distinguished careers in the NFL.

Running back is another position where Wisconsin has arguably recruited better than Iowa, and sometimes at Iowa's expense.

Former Badger running back Melvin Gordon signed with Wisconsin in 2011 after having previously been committed to Iowa and now ranks as one the top players in the history of the Wisconsin program. Gordon is from Kenosha, Wis., so the pressure to stay home combined with Wisconsin's success ultimately won him over. 

Iowa sophomore defensive end A.J. Epenesa is the only consensus five-star recruit on either team, and he was basically born and raised to be a Hawkeye as the son of former Iowa defensvie lineman Eppy Epenesa.

Iowa and Wisconsin both go after some of the five-star recruits, but they usually fail to land them.

Hayden Fry gave Alverez his first big break in coaching by hiring him away from Mason City High School shortly after the 1978 season. Alvarez had just led Mason City to a state title and Fry saw something special in Alvarez as a coach.

Alvarez played a key role in helping Fry ressurrect the Iowa program in the early 1980s, and then used much of what he learned under Fry to do the same at Wisconsin a decade later. Alrarez also hired two of Fry's top assistants in Dan McCarney and Bernie Wyatt, both of whom were former Iowa players, to help rebuild the Wisconsin program.

Wyatt grew up in New York and used many of the same recruiting connections to the East Coast that helped to land star players such as Andre Tippett and Ronnie Harmon for Iowa to land star players like Ron Dayne and Lee Deramus for Wisconsin.

"People make a difference, I really believe that," Ferentz said. "I think Barry had a vision when he went up there. Barry has a good football mind, obviously. They put a good staff together. Those players really believed in what they were doing."

Alvarez's vision is still very noticable today with him now serving as the Wisconsin athletic director. Wisconsin still mostly plays the same way on offense under head coach Paul Chryst. And though the defense switched from a 4-3 formation to a 3-4 under former head coach Gary Andersen, the approach to defense, and the results haven't changed that much.

"The interesting part to me, I mean, any good defense, no matter whether you're odd scheme, even scheme, there's certain things you do well," Ferentz said. "What amazed me was the transition, how easily they transitioned. I was a little curious about how that was going to go. That was impressive. They transitioned almost seamlessly.

"More impressive, a pretty veteran team, a year later they lost a ton of guys. We were playing them about this time of year, fourth, fifth game. They were better statistically than they had been with a veteran group the year before. That really caught my attention."

Wisconsin and Iowa both have reason to be proud of what they've accomplished in football and they will continue to draw comparisons due to their many similarities on and off the playing field. They also will continue to recruit many of the same players, because like Ferentz said, they both look for many of the same characteristics in players.

Wisconsin's 2019 recruiting class is currently ranked 36th nationally by Rivals, while Iowa's class is ranked 44th overall.

"Overall, it's been a great series through the years," Ferentz said. "We've had a lot of good games with Wisconsin. We're going to have to play our best to make it that type of game. A trophy game, so that's always important. Adds a little bit to it.":

Wisconsin has dominated the series recently, but its record against Iowa still is only slightly above .500 at 46-43-2 overall.

"Overall, it's been a great series through the years," Ferentz said. "We've had a lot of good games with Wisconsin. We're going to have to play our best to make it that type of game. A trophy game, so that's always important. Adds a little bit to it."

Pat Harty contributed to this article

 

Recruiting breakdown
The following information box lists the current starters, and a few other key players, for both Iowa and Wisconsin heading into Saturday's game, along with each player's recruiting ranking and list of power five scholarship offers.

Iowa

Average class rank since 2014 – 48

Pos., Name, Rivals rating, Other Power Five offers

Offense

QB Nate Stanley, Three-star, Wisconsin

RB Ivory Kelly-Martin, Three-star, Wisconsin, Arizona, Illinois, Syracuse, Vanderbilt

RB Toren Young, Three-star, None

FB Brady Ross, Walk-on

WR Brandon Smith, Three-star, Colorado State, Vanderbilt

WR Nick Easley, Transfer from Iowa Western

TE Noah Fant, Three-star, California, Iowa State, Minnesota, Nebraska, UCLA, Vanderbilt

TE T.J. Hockenson, Three-star, Iowa State

LT Alaric Jackson, Three-star, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa State, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, Rutgers, Syracuse

LG Ross Reynolds, Two-star, None

C Keegan Render, Three-star, Iowa State

RG Dalton Ferguson, Walk-on

RT Tristan Wirfs, Four-star, Iowa State

K Miguel Recinos, Walk-on

Defense

DE Anthony Nelson, Three-star, Iowa State

DT Sam Brincks, Walk-on

DT Matt Nelson, Three-star, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Iowa State, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Stanford

DE Parker Hesse, Two-star, None

DE A.J. Epenesa, Five-star, Wisconsin, Alabama, Florida State, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Ole Miss, Missouri, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Purdue, Southern Cal, Tennessee, UCLA, Vanderbilt, Washington State

OLB Nick Niemann, Three-star, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Illinois, Iowa State

MLB Jack Hockaday, Three-star, Duke, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, Nebraska

OLB Kristian Welch, Three-star, None

CB Matt Hankins, Three-star, Colorado, Colorado State, Duke, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Texas Tech

S Amani Hooker, Three-star, None

S Jake Gervase, Walk-on

CB Michael Ojemudia, Two-star, Indiana

P Colten Rastetter, Walk-on

Wisconsin

Average class rank since 2014 – 36

Offense

QB Alex Hornibrook, Three-star, Pittsburgh, Rutgers

RB Jonathan Taylor, Four-star, Rutgers, Virginia Tech, Washington State

FB Alex Ingold, Two-star, Pittsburgh

WR Kendric Pryor, Three-star, Iowa, Iowa State

WR Danny Davis, Four-star, Iowa, Duke, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisville, Maryland, Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Northwestern, Oregon, Penn State, Rutgers, Virginia, West Virginia

WR A.J Taylor, Four-star, Iowa, Illinois, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, Northwestern, Vanderbilt

TE Zander Neuville, N/A

LT Jon Dietzen, Three-star, Illinois, Iowa State, Miami (FL), Michigan State, Nebraska

LG Michael Deiter, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Nebraska, West Virginia

C Tyler Biadasz, N/A

RG Beau Benzschawel, Three-star, Iowa State, Syracuse

RT David Edwards, Three-star, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Syracuse, Vanderbilt

K Rafael Gaglianone, Two-star, North Carolina State

Defense

DE Isaiahh Loudermilk, Three-star, Arizona State, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Minnesota, Missouri, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Texas Tech, Vanderbilt

NT Olive Sagapolu, Three-star, Illinois, Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Washington State

DE Kayden Lyles, Four-star, Arizona, Arizona State, California, Kansas, Louisville, Michigan, Michigan State, Missouri, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oregon State, Southern Cal, UCLA, Washington

OLB Andrew Van Ginkel, Four-star, Iowa, California, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State, Louisville, Minnesota, Nebraska, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, West Virginia

ILB T.J. Edwards, Three-star, None

ILB Ryan Connelly, N/A

OLB Zack Baun, Three-star, None

CB Caesar Williams, Two-star, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas State

SS D’Cota Dixon, Three-star, Arkansas, Auburn, Duke, Illinois, Louisville, Michigan State, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest

FS Scott Nelson, Three-star, Iowa, Boston College, Iowa State, Michigan, Michigan State, Nebraska, Northwestern, Penn State, Pittsburgh, Purdue

CB Faion Hicks, Three-star, Illinois, Iowa State

P Anthony Lotti, Three-star, Boston College, Georgia Tech

Other notables:

DT Bryson Williams, Three-star, Iowa, Duke, Iowa State, Kansas State, Nebraska, Virginia Tech

LB Jack Sanborn, Four-star, Iowa, Duke, Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Syracuse, Vanderbilt