For the Wisconsin football team, the second bye week of the season seemed to have great timing as the team focused on getting healthy, which included star linebacker Chris Borland, who is nursing a hamstring injury.
The No. 22 Badgers are 5-2 (3-1 Big Ten), and will travel to Iowa City this weekend for a matchup against the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2), who are coming off a 17-10 win over Northwestern Saturday.
At his weekly press conference Monday, head coach Gary Andersen said Borland probably would not have played if UW had a game scheduled this past weekend.
“I think he’ll get back as soon as he can, but I’m very optimistic that he’ll play in the game,” Andersen said.
Borland plays a key role in the defense and has been the centerpiece of the Wisconsin defense for two years. His absence in the first half of Wisconsin’s game against Illinois was noticeable as the Badgers’ defense struggled to contain the Illini attack. Facing a potent Hawkeye rushing attack Saturday, Andersen would like to see his leading linebacker out there.
“They’re going to force you to make a play whether it’s the open field or whether it’s in the close quarters but with punishing runs and they consistently have done that,” Andersen said.
Likely more important than the Iowa offense, however, looms the Iowa defense, a force to be reckoned with as the Hawkeyes rank 12th in points against this season, surrendering just 18.1 per game.
“So they’re stout, tough linebackers who carry themselves with the presence of liking football and they like physical football,” Andersen said. “They make very good decisions.”
The Badgers’ rushing attack, which averages almost 300 yards a game, could have difficulties against a powerful and smart Iowa front seven. Andersen said the running backs are continuing to put in hard work and push themselves, which is why they have been so successful on Saturdays.
“They buy into the hard coaching and buy into the demands he puts on them because they know it produces on the field if they listen and they have the talent,” Andersen said.
After watching film of Iowa, Andersen said he thinks this game will be a battle and that he respects the Hawkeyes’ game. The first-year coach hadn’t known much about Iowa before this season, but he respects them more every time he tunes in.
‘The respect has grown for me just watching them, how they play, how they compete and are coached and how they like to play football. And it’s a great opportunity for us to go into another hectic environment,” Andersen said. “I understand it’s a very difficult place to play. It’s very loud. Great fans, which is what the Big Ten is all about, so our kids are looking forward to the opportunity.”
A continuing focus for UW has been in the defensive backfield, but UW has especially worked on improving the consistency and playmaking in the young secondary. The defense surrendered 32 points against Illinois, which is something they want to improve on.
“We have players that are eager and excited and the care factor is high. We know it’s a little bit of an issue for us and we need to continue to work and it all starts with the coaches and filters down to the kids,” Andersen said. “I’m excited to see them get out and play as [we] get a few more practices underneath our belt.”
The secondary could be the key to breaking ahead in this rivalry. The all-time series record between Wisconsin and Iowa is tied 42-42-2.
The Heartland Trophy will be on the line, adding a small incentive for both squads. Even when records might not show it, rivalry games will always be close because there is something more to fight for.
One thing Andersen knows is the importance of rivalry games.
“You sit there and you look at that trophy, it’s either a trophy case with a trophy in it or a trophy case that’s empty. And you either hope to hold onto it or hope to get it back,” Andersen said.
The trophy has stayed in Madison for the past three seasons since Wisconsin and Iowa last met in 2010.
With the new B1G division alignments starting next season, the Badgers and Hawkeyes will play each other once every year to maintain the rivalry. Andersen thinks games are good for football fans and college football as a whole as well.
A rare Saturday not spent on the gridiron, Andersen used the bye week to simply watch football as a fan and not worrying about the stresses of coaching.
“I found myself just really watching the Big Ten games and I watched the Northwestern-Iowa game basically from start to end, and it was a very good game,” Andersen said.“I tailgated a little bit in my kitchen by myself [and] had a good tailgate party; me and the dogs hung out. It was a good day.”