When the Wisconsin football team (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) hits the road and heads to Iowa City, Iowa Saturday to challenge the Hawkeyes (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten), it will be the first time in three seasons the Heartland Trophy will be up for grabs.
After the dust settled on the realignment of the conference ahead of the 2011 season, Iowa ended up in the Legends division and Wisconsin in the Leaders division — meaning a game between the teams was no longer a guarantee each year.
Since this conference shuffle, players may have come and gone, but the trophy still sits in Wisconsin’s locker room. Although many of the players may not have personally fought in any of the battles between the two teams, the locker room is exactly where they want the trophy to stay, redshirt junior cornerback Peniel Jean said.
“Even though we haven’t played in a while, it still means a lot,” Jean said. “It’s been going on since Coach Alvarez got here. … It’s something that we don’t want to lose. We’ve had it in our locker room for three years already…and that’s something that we don’t want to give back to them. We don’t like losing.”
Overall, the rivalry sits at an even 42-42-2 record over its 119-year history, with Wisconsin taking three of the last five matchups and needing just one more win to tie Iowa at 4-4 all-time since the Heartland trophy was created in 2004.
As opposed to the many other teams Wisconsin has faced in 2013, Iowa boasts a very gritty run-based offense — similar to Wisconsin — that features two running backs, although nine players have accumulated rushing yards for the team this year.
Juniors Mark Weisman and Damon Bullock, who account for an average of 137 yards per game on the ground for Iowa, lead the rushing attack and have already proved pesky to a number of other teams this season. Against Ohio State, a game that Iowa led heading into the second half, Weisman and Bullock each averaged more than five yards a carry and set the passing game up for three touchdowns.
“They’re tough, physical backs and they like contact,” head coach Gary Andersen said in a press conference Monday. “It’s one of the things you see when you watch them. When they get to the next level, for the defender it’s not just going to be ‘OK, it’s time for you to tackle me.’ You have to own the right and you’re going to be either deserving of making a tackle or deserving of not making a tackle.
“They’re going to force you to make a play, whether it’s the open field or whether it’s in close quarters with punishing runs.”
Fortunately for the Badgers, they have played well against the run in 2013 and currently boast the second best rushing defense in the conference, holding their opponents to an average of 88.2 yards per game and a total of 353 yards total this season. The rush defense will likely be bolstered by the return of senior linebacker Chris Borland, who was forced to sit the majority of the game in Wisconsin’s last game Oct. 19.
“Chris would not have played last Saturday. So [it] came at a great time for Chris because I know how much it means to him and how much it means for us to have him on the field,” Andersen said. “But if you just single out Chris, missing a Big Ten game is big for Chris and he basically missed the Illinois game already. He doesn’t want that to happen. Neither do we.”
Still, while the emphasis will be placed on containing Iowa’s running game, the passing game has played its part in Iowa’s successes this season as well.
On the season, sophomore quarterback Jake Rudock has averaged 202 passing yards per game and has thrown for 12 touchdowns, two more than the team has scored on the ground.
A quick look at the team’s conference record might then look odd for a team that seems to be competitive, statistically speaking, but it becomes clearer after taking a glance at Iowa’s red zone offensive statistics.
In 2013, Iowa has the third-lowest conversion rate in the red zone, scoring points on only 75 percent of trips inside its opponent’s 20-yard line. On 12 trips to the red zone, Iowa has scored nine times and managed a touchdown only six times.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin claims the conference’s best red zone defense, which has held its opponents to a mere 70 percent success rate this season. Jean says the defense has its strong communication to thank for their success in those high-pressure situations, something they hope will continue against Iowa on Saturday.
“We play together and we communicate really well,” Jean said. “We have been [doing] really well keeping teams out of the red zone, so they’re not really getting down there and that is all because of communication.”
On offense, Wisconsin’s rushing attack of running backs redshirt sophomore Melvin Gordon and senior James White will hope to test Iowa early and often in what will likely become a trench battle on the ground, as has often been the case in previous competitions for the Heartland Trophy.
But for the veterans who have played in this rivalry before, redshirt senior linebacker Conor O’Neill and Co., they wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When you go out and play Iowa, you know it’s going to be a dog fight,” O’Neill said. “Even if the young guys don’t know about it, they’ll learn really quick.”