IOWA CITY, Iowa — Sometimes a win doesn’t have to look pretty — something the Wisconsin football team (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) learned in its 28-9 victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes (5-4, 2-3 Big Ten) Saturday on a windy day in Iowa City.
With wind gusts reaching 12 miles-an-hour at the time of kickoff and headed straight down the north end of the football field, an already tough Big Ten matchup quickly became a trench battle between both teams as they sought to take home the Heartland Trophy for the first time since their most recent meeting in 2010.
“That’s a big time college football game,” head coach Gary Andersen said. “It’s a privilege to be a part of a game like that. There were great kids on both sides of the ball with a lot of fight and that’s what we thought it would be like.
“They kept on fighting and battling and we were fortunate to get some points out of it.”
Seeming to struggle when trying to figure out the offense’s plan of attack in tough weather conditions, redshirt sophomore quarterback Joel Stave had his first pass of the game intercepted by Iowa’s Tanner Miller early in the first quarter.
With the wind in its face, Wisconsin’s offense was unable to do much with the rest of its first quarter possessions as well. Instead, the battle for field possession became the name of the game as Wisconsin resorted to a number of different tactics to prevent Iowa from being gifted valuable field position — including using some rugby style punts to keep the ball under the blustery wind above.
“Kick it really hard, and the wind [was] going to knock the ball down and I don’t know how to stop that,” Andersen said. “We tried to stop it with the rugby. One rugby was good and the second rugby was a little bit worrisome. … It was just a tough kicking venue.”
Through the first quarter, Wisconsin’s offense wouldn’t fair much better, failing to earn a single first down during the first 15 minutes of play.
Meanwhile, Iowa methodically built up a six-point lead midway through the second quarter — running and passing the Wisconsin ragged without star redshirt senior linebacker Chris Borland to anchor the defense — and seemed poised to give the 22-ranked Badgers anything but an easy away win.
But then everything changed in the second quarter.
With the newfound confidence of having the wind at its back, the Wisconsin offense burst back to life.
Starting their drive at their own 28-yard line with just under five minutes to play in the half, the Badgers strung together a number of good running plays before Stave connected with redshirt senior Jacob Pedersen for a 44-yard touchdown.
“Stave and me, we have repped that a lot in practice,” Pedersen said. “We haven’t done it in games before, but we connected and that showed, ‘Hey, we just have to make plays when they come.’”
From that point on, Wisconsin slipped into cruise control, maintaining and building the lead for the remainder of the game on its way to a 28-9 victory at Kinnick Stadium — the team’s largest margin of victory over Iowa since 1998.
Coming into the second half with a razor-thin 7-6 lead, redshirt sophomore Darius Hillary’s first career interception gave Wisconsin the ball on the Iowa 20-yard line and an opportunity to take command of a tight contest.
“I definitely think that was a momentum shift for us,” Hillary said. “It gave us a lot more energy and, then for them, it was the exact opposite. They kind of shut down a little bit. We thrive off of that.”
One play later Stave connected with redshirt senior wide receiver Jared Abbrederis for a 20-yard touchdown pass to double Wisconsin’s lead and give them a commanding lead away from home and in difficult weather conditions. Abbrederis would be forced to leave the game after receiving a chest injury on the play.
While Iowa would climb back within striking distance later in the third quarter, a pair of senior running back James White scores in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach for the Hawkeyes and guaranteed Wisconsin its sixth win of the season, making the team bowl eligible for the 12th year in a row — the longest active streak in the Big Ten.
“It’s huge to be bowl eligible,” Andersen said. “For me, I love being bowl eligible. It’s an opportunity to be with these kids for whatever amount of time it may be — if it’s a month or longer, whatever. … I love this group of kids. It fires me up.”