(WSCR) – Next year will usher in a brand new, and bigger, Big Ten Conference. The addition of Nebraska will allow for the conference to add a title game; and as a result, will split the conference up into two divisions.
One of the casualties of the Big Ten’s upcoming divisional format is the annual matchup between Iowa and Wisconsin, two of the closest rivals in the country.
Before the Hawkeyes or Badgers pack away the Heartland Trophy for the next few years, they’ll meet on Saturday with ramifications much more pressing than hardware.
No. 10 Wisconsin (6-1, 2-1 Big Ten) will be looking for a signature road win and wants to show the nation that last week’s 31-18 upset of then-No. 1 Ohio State wasn’t a fluke.
For No. 13 Iowa (5-1, 2-0), it’s the first of three home games against the league’s other top contenders. Michigan State and the Buckeyes follow the Badgers, and the road to the conference title goes through Kinnick Stadium.
“I like challenges, and word on the street is it’s a big challenge,” Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt said.
It usually is when the old-school Badgers and Hawkeyes knock heads.
This has been the most competitive rivalry in the Big Ten. Iowa holds a 42-41-4 edge after winning in Madison 20-10 in 2009, and this year’s matchup doesn’t promise to be any different.
Both teams are winning behind strong defenses, powerful running games and passing attacks that exploit opponents fearful of getting gouged on the ground.
Iowa ranks sixth in the nation in scoring defense, allowing just 13.2 points per game. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi has thrown for 13 touchdowns against just two interceptions with a completion rate of nearly 70 percent, and sophomore Adam Robinson has quietly emerged as one of the best running backs in the Big Ten.
Wisconsin brings in a huge offensive line leading the way for 255-pound John Clay and speedy freshman James White. The two have combined for 1,356 rushing yards and will present the toughest challenge yet for Iowa’s defensive line and linebackers.
Clay was slowed by an ankle injury in the second half of last year’s loss to Iowa and wound up with 75 yards rushing.
“It’s going to be pound, pound, pound and then they’re going to take their shots downfield,” Iowa safety Tyler Sash said. “Each game presents a different challenge, and that challenge is stopping the run first and foremost. That’s what Wisconsin’s going to do, that’s what they’ve always been known to do.”
A question for the Badgers is whether they have enough left in the tank to beat a ranked rival on the road one week after a thrilling home win over the Buckeyes. After all, South Carolina upset then-No. 1 Alabama two weeks ago and promptly fell at Kentucky.
A loss would leave the Badgers two back of Iowa in the league loss column with the Hawkeyes holding the tiebreaker.
“We’ve got to really take pride on focusing in on Iowa,” Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien said. “It was a great weekend and a great win, but it’s on to the next game.”
Iowa survived its first Big Ten road test last week, beating Michigan 38-28 after jumping out to a 35-14 lead. It was a gut-check win for the Hawkeyes, who spent all week preparing for explosive dual-threat quarterback Denard Robinson and had issues with backup Tate Forcier after knocking Robinson out of the game.
But Iowa knows exactly what it’s going to see from the Badgers, and it’s the same deal for Wisconsin.
Both schools play similar styles that rely heavily on tight ends, fullbacks and physicality. They dip heavily into the same areas for recruiting, as was the case with White, and Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema is a former Iowa letterman and assistant coach with a Hawkeyes tattoo on his calf.
Beginning next year, Iowa and Wisconsin are being split into different divisions as the Big Ten expands to 12 members with Nebraska joining the fold. Saturday’s game should show the rest of the league what it’ll be missing by not having the Badgers and Hawkeyes knock heads every fall.
Iowa and Wisconsin won’t play each other for at least the next two seasons, barring the league title game.
“In today’s college football world, where teams are running the spread and they’re just trying to get you to run one way or the other, Iowa’s going to line up and you know they’re going to hit you right in the mouth,” Watt said. “The tougher football team will win.”
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