One monkey is off Bret Bielema’s back. Now, there’s just one more to shake.
The Wisconsin head coach and his team got a monumental victory in beating then-No. 1 Ohio State last weekend. The Badgers defeated the Buckeyes for the first time in Bielema’s tenure and earned him a true signature victory.
But the win could mean a lot less if No. 10 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1) falters on the road Saturday against No. 13 Iowa (5-1, 2-0). Bielema still has yet to defeat a ranked Big Ten opponent on the road.
The Badgers are not in control of their Big Ten fate after losing to Michigan State to open conference play. The Spartans are 7-0 and don’t have to play Ohio State this season, so if they run the table, they’ll be Big Ten champions.
What Wisconsin can control is how it plays on the road this weekend. UW is 2-2 against UI under Bielema and have lost two straight to the Hawkeyes. Last year turnovers and an ineffective running game cost UW a 20-10 loss, while in their last visit to Kinnick Stadium, the Badgers were thumped 38-16.
Wisconsin looked similarly docile in East Lansing three weeks ago, facing a tough, physical Michigan State team. The Hawkeyes hang their hat on the same smashmouth style of football the Badgers and Spartans have employed.
“I would say it’s a step up, almost (from MSU),” defensive end J.J. Watt said. “When you go into Kinnick Stadium in Iowa, you know you’re going to get a tough, physical football game.”
Neither the Badgers nor the Hawkeyes employ any of the spread formations that have made it into Ohio State’s and Michigan’s playbooks. Both teams will run the ball and rely on efficient, smart quarterbacks to manage the game.
UI signal caller Ricky Stanzi has been especially efficient and smart this season, throwing for 1,474 yards and 13 touchdowns against just two interceptions. Although the Hawkeyes’ running game has been depleted by injuries, running back Adam Robinson leads an effective rushing attack made more lethal by Stanzi’s excellent play-action fake.
“When you run the ball like they do, their play action is going to be very good, and Stanzi’s a very good quarterback, only two picks on the year,” Watt said.
Despite a similar run-first mentality, Stanzi has a pair of big receivers to throw to in Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Marvin McNutt. UW’s cornerbacks had one of their best games in recent memory in shutting down OSU’s Dane Sanzenbacher and DeVier Posey.
Johnson-Koulianos was able to break free for eight catches for 113 yards in last year’s matchup, and it will be important for cornerbacks Niles Brinkley and Antonio Fenelus to repeat their performance from last Saturday.
“We’ve just got to focus on having that same type of game we had last week, being on top of the receivers, being in the right position,” Brinkley said.
Once again, though, the big battle in this game will occur in the trenches. Ohio State was touted as having one of the best defensive fronts in the Big Ten, and Wisconsin’s offensive line was able to push them around at will. Iowa’s D-line is arguably better and anchored by end Adrian Clayborn, who is having a quiet year up to this point.
Iowa also leads the Big Ten in rushing defense, allowing just 83.8 yards on the ground per game. The Hawkeyes have also only given up two rushing touchdowns on the year, while Wisconsin leads the conference with 24 rushing touchdowns.
It’s strength on strength, nothing complex.
“Their basic thing is that their guys in the box are going to beat your guys,” senior left guard John Moffitt said. “So you appreciate the simplicity of it, but you have to prepare for the challenge.”
The other big challenge for Wisconsin will be taking the momentum off Saturday’s win and trying to keep the intensity up for this weekend. No team has beaten a top-10 team then gone on the road to face a ranked opponent and won.
Bielema was happy with the way the Badgers prepared throughout the week.
“I thought they handled the week very well off of last week’s energy-filled Saturday,” he said. “I thought they really snapped back in on Tuesday and Wednesday and had a good practice out there [Thursday].”
“That mindset that you’re not going to have the momentum is something that we need to focus on. The fans did a great job for us, we had a night game, we had all that, it was just an electric feeling,” center Pete Konz said. “It was all for us, we knew that. Even when they started coming back, we kind of had that feeling of ‘Okay, we can do this,’ whereas on the road, everybody starts going against you. You need to be able to mentally say, ‘Okay, this is not how it’s going to be, we can change the game.’”
As if the Badgers needed any more motivation, this will be the last time for a couple of years the two teams play each other. With the addition of Nebraska and the split into two divisions, some Big Ten teams will go years without facing each other. Iowa and Wisconsin are in different divisions, meaning whoever wins the Heartland Trophy Saturday gets to keep it for at least a couple of years.
Despite the border rivalry, Konz said the Badgers aren’t focused on the trophy as much as the win itself.
“Iowa, not too much. What, did it start like five years ago? It’s not like the Axe, where it’s been hundreds of years,” he joked. “But I mean, I wouldn’t mind carrying around a trophy.”