It doesn’t take too long to figure out the key stretch in Wisconsin’s 2010 schedule.

Week seven marks a showdown with the Buckeyes in Madison, and a week later the Badgers travel to Iowa City for a matchup the Hawkeyes.

Everyone knows those two weeks will go a long way in defining this year’s team.

Trouble is, the Badgers have struggled to beat ranked conference opponents in recent years. UW has a combined 1-5 record against OSU and Iowa in the last three seasons.

Last year, the Badgers had a similar schedule, with Ohio State and Iowa featured in back-to-back weeks, and both games ended with hopeful Badger fans hanging their heads.

A major reason for those two losses? UW’s inability to handle the opposing defensive lines.

But that’s not something to be ashamed of, considering OSU and Iowa possess two stout units, featuring two of the best ends in the nation. Star senior Cameron Heyward anchors Ohio State’s line, while the relentless Adrian Clayborn leads the way for Iowa and both Heyward and Clayborn have been tabbed pre-season All-Americans by major publications.

For any offense lining up against those two D-linemen to have success, the play of its left tackle (the man lined up across Clayborn and Heyward) is critical.

Fortunately for UW, they possess one of the best in the country — senior captain Gabe Carimi. The Cottage Grove-native is one of the few linemen in college football with the ability to handle such forces off the edge. Possessing such a rare talent at left tackle gives UW a legitimate chance to upend the Big Ten’s top teams.

In his final collegiate season, a year where UW has the talent and depth to contend for the conference crown, Carimi’s play against the Big Ten’s best defensive ends will be a determining factor in UW’s title chances.

“This league is loaded with defensive ends,” senior quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “But it’s really comforting knowing we have Gabe, a guy we all trust, to get the job done.”

Standing at 6-foot-7 and weighing over 320 pounds, Carimi is a pre-season all-conference selection and he’s caught the eye of NFL scouts who project him as a first-round pick.

Carimi has flashed NFL potential throughout his years at UW, and he’s always been loaded with talent, but injuries and inconsistency have halted his play from reaching a truly dominant level. That dominant performance fans had been waiting for appeared in the Champs Sports Bowl, however, where Carimi paved the way for a 121-yard performance from John Clay and gave Tolzien the time he needed to carve up a skilled Miami defense.

And the most impressive part about Carimi’s performance was the fact that he played despite limping off the field at one point with a gruesome knee injury.

“My kneecap got dislocated, and when it came back into place there was some loose flaps of cartilage,” Carimi said. “It was painful, but it felt stable enough and I felt I needed to be out there with my team.”

Initially, it looked like UW’s left tackle was going to watch the bowl game unfold from the sidelines.

Instead, he sat out one series.

“It sent a message to all of us. He gets injured and hops right back in there,” Tolzien said. “That right there is what this program is built on.”

That was one of many difficult injuries Carimi played through last season. In games against Ohio State and Iowa, Carimi’s health caught up with him, and Heyward and Clayborn took advantage, constantly pressuring the UW backfield. The talented tackle was unable to compete at his highest level.

In fact, a shoulder sprain suffered against OSU made him one-handed.

“I sustained the shoulder injury at Ohio State, and I was gone from practice the whole next week. I was just running by people on blocks,” Carimi said. “Then the next week was Iowa where I reinjured it on the first play.

“I couldn’t punch out with my left arm at all and it took two months after the season for me to start sleeping right on my bed.”

Yet despite all the frustrating, debilitating injuries, in the final game of the season Carimi fought through the pain and delivered a heroic effort, as the Badgers earned their most impressive win in Orlando.

Now, to reach the higher goals this team has set for the season, the Badgers must build off that Champs Sports Bowl victory, take care of business in conference play and get Carimi to consistently live up to his potential.

Clayborn and the OSU line got the best of him and the Badgers last season, and the senior tackle remembers it well. But this is a new year, a year where Carimi is finally at 100 percent. Heading into 2010, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone more anxious for another shot at the Big Ten’s toughest teams, where he’ll go head-to-head against the nation’s top defensive ends.

“Last year I was just trying to get by with my injuries, but this year I plan on excelling in those big games,” Carimi said.

For the Badgers to take down Ohio State and Iowa and win the conference, that’s exactly what they’ll need.

Max is a senior majoring in journalism. Think Carimi and the Badgers are primed for a Big Ten title run? E-mail him at [email protected]