IOWA CITY, Iowa — It took five years for Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema to notch his first signature conference win.
Now he has two in eight days.
My, how quickly things have changed in Madison.
No. 1 Ohio State was physically dominated by the Badgers in Madison last week and days later UW rolled into Iowa City and pulled out the kind of win that leaves you short of breath. The kind of win that has your heart racing faster than you thought possible.
It was the kind of win that makes following sports as closely as so many of us do so enjoyable.
And somehow, the win over Iowa was able to surpass the victory over OSU.
I didn’t think that could be done. With all the hype — College GameDay in attendance and the No. 1 team in the country coming to Camp Randall at night — UW’s win over the Buckeyes and the subsequent storming of the field was just about as good as it gets.
But beating Iowa 31-30 was just like the final score — about one point better.
There is nothing more satisfying than going on the road, to a place Iowa fans call “the Mecca of college football” and gutting out a one-point victory over a bitter rival. Winning away from home is incredibly difficult to do, and when everyone thought the Badgers would suffer a letdown after beating the Buckeyes, UW went to Iowa City and defied the odds.
And while all that outside stuff is great — taking back the Heartland Trophy and silencing more than 70,000 screaming Hawkeye fans — the part that makes UW’s win so remarkable comes down to the players UW was forced to rely on between the lines.
Scoring on Iowa’s stout defense at Kinnick Stadium is tough for the most talented of teams but it’s almost impossible to do when four of your best offensive players are watching from the sideline. Well, maybe not completely impossible.
Tight end Lance Kendricks, wide receiver Nick Toon, center Pete Konz and running back James White all missed time due to injury against the Hawkeyes.
The Badger’s top two receiving threats, the starting center playing at an all-conference caliber level, and the electric change of pace back with nine touchdowns on the year were all out.
Well, as Bielema always says, next man in.
Tight ends Jacob Pedersen and Jake Byrne stepped in to try to replace Kendricks and that’s a lot to ask, especially considering the opponent. Iowa’s D-line is one of, if not the top unit in the country, and Pedersen and Byrne needed to help block the likes of Adrian Clayborn and Christian Ballard in the run game.
Plus, Scott Tolzien relies heavily on Kendricks (two catches for 26 yards before his first quarter injury) in the passing game and his backups needed to provide a security blanket for the their quarterback against such a relentless front seven.
Pedersen chipped in with two catches for 30 yards and Byrne caught two as well (the first of his career) for 12. A senior captain and elite tight end was gone, but his backups held their own.
“I know the guys behind me are ready and willing to step in,” Kendricks said of Pedersen and Byrne. “Those guys work hard and they deserve a ton of credit.”
With Toon out those four catches combined were even more significant and everyone from Isaac Anderson to Bradie Ewing contributed in the passing game.
And Konz’s ankle injury along with White’s knee injury presented an opportunity for two players begging for a chance to contribute.
Senior linemen Bill Nagy had already been moved to tight end to help in power running formations and with Konz sidelined, O-line coach Bob Bostad knew he could count on Nagy to step in.
“[Bostad] pulled Bill Nagy out of tight end, put him in at center and he didn’t miss a beat,” Bielema said.
Lastly, we come to Montee Ball, who’s play made everyone wearing red Saturday proud. White had become one of the most dynamic runners in the conference and coming into the game it looked as though the UW needed his ability to stretch Iowa’s defense, like he did against OSU, to be effective.
But when White was no longer available, Ball answered the bell.
It’s been a difficult season for Ball, a sophomore who saw plenty of action as the second option in the backfield a year ago. With White’s emergence, Ball has been pushed down the depth chart and he didn’t even see the field against Ohio State.
But Ball continued to work in practice. He carved out a role as a third-down back and improved his pass catching ability and was waiting for his chance to make an impact.
During Wisconsin’s game-winning drive, Ball lined up as a receiver in the five wide, empty backfield formation and he got the chance he was looking for.
On fourth and four Tolzien threw a quick pass over the middle. No Kendricks, no Toon, just a cast of new faces running routes on fourth down.
He hit Ball for the first down with a 7-yard completion.
A few plays later, Ball had his team’s fate in his hands once again. This time, he lined up in the backfield.
Ball took a handoff from the eight-yard line and ran like a man possessed, like a man who was going to do whatever it took to get his team a ‘W’. After so many snaps watching from the sideline Ball took out his frustration on about six Hawkeyes who held on for dear life as Ball carried them towards the goal line.
There was nothing Iowa could do to stop him. Touchdown.
“I don’t want to let my team down. Next man in and you got to do your job,” Ball said. “We stay focused in practice for moments like that.”
Tolzien put it best.
“That was really one of the coolest things about the day, was watching Montee,” Tolzien said. “That’s frustrating when you get all those reps as a true freshman and all of a sudden… you drop in the depth chart. You can’t say enough of his approach, his selflessness.”
Former UW head coach Barry Alvarez used to say a team needs five elite players to make a season special. But in Iowa City on Saturday, Bielema needed help from everyone. He needed help from the third string running back and backup tight ends to fight for a huge win.
“I talked this morning in our meeting that by NCAA rules we can only bring down 70 people,” Bielema said. “And we are going to need every one of them to win this game today.”
On that day, on the road, on the ropes, it wasn’t a few great players who were responsible for that win. No, it was Tolzien and an offense filled with replacements that came through.
And that inspired team effort is making this season special.
Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Still can’t believe the Badgers pulled out that victory in Iowa? E-mail him at [email protected] and follow @maxhenson on Twitter.