MADISON, Wis. — Until someone proves otherwise, the road to the Big Ten Conference’s West Division football championship rolls through Camp Randall Stadium.
Saturday, Iowa has a great chance to be that someone.
The 4-0 Hawkeyes are confident and might have the West’s best quarterback going into the 11:01 a.m. ESPN-televised showdown against No. 19 Wisconsin (3-1), which has appeared in three of the four Big Ten title games and averaged 10 wins a season since 2009.
“If you are going to be a contender, you're going to have to do well against them,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We're not going to let one game define the entire season. But it's an important game.”
There’s chatter that this could decide the division championship. A slightly dramatic statement, perhaps — it’s one game out of eight, after all. Fans of No. 16 Northwestern (4-0 with wins over Stanford and Duke) would like to weigh in on that notion, too.
But for Iowa, a loss quickly makes reaching its first Big Ten title game a long shot. Wisconsin, with a head-to-head win over Iowa and the league’s friendliest league schedule (Maryland and Rutgers, the lowest-valued Big Ten East teams in the computer composite rankings, are Wisconsin’s two crossover opponents), would be several steps ahead of a West counterpart that was impressive in nonconference play.
It’s way too early to discount the teams that were predicted by Big Ten media to finish second and third to Wisconsin, but 2-2 Nebraska (last-ranked pass defense in FBS) and 3-1 Minnesota (serious offensive struggles) have been shaky through four games.
Minnesota at Northwestern and Nebraska at Illinois will serve as undercards Saturday to the big bout — Iowa vs. Wisconsin, two confident teams who know there might be a lot more on the line than the 2004-instituted Heartland Trophy.
“Iowa’s a tough team, and they come in with a certain swagger about them,” said Badgers star safety Michael Caputo, who missed most of the opening 35-17 loss to Alabama with a concussion. “They’re going to want to come in and take it to you, and you’ve got to be able to respond.”
The Wisconsin challenge
The Hawkeyes are 6.5-point underdogs to a team that has owned them recently.
Wisconsin has a three-game winning streak in the series, all at Kinnick Stadium. There was the fake punt game of 2010 (resulting in a 31-30 Badgers win that many point to as beginning the post-Orange Bowl Ferentz malaise), the defensive domination of 2013 (28-9) and the Melvin Gordon show of 2014 (26-24).
At home, the Badgers are even tougher. They’re 71-7 at Camp Randall since 2004 and have won 10 in a row there and 16 of their last 17.
And that defense is always menacing. The Badgers, who were fortunate to retain Dave Aranda as defensive coordinator after head coach Gary Andersen left and was replaced by Paul Chryst, haven’t allowed a touchdown in 188 minutes, 2 seconds of action — more than three games’ worth. They allowed a total of 93 rushing yards and three points in wins over Miami (Ohio), Troy and Hawaii.
“I can assure you what they do creates a lot of stress on you,” Ferentz said. “Defensively they just — if you try to load up in one area, they're going to find it real quick because they know their system and they know where to go when you're hurting them.”
Outside linebackers Joe Schobert and Vince Biegel have combined for 15 tackles for loss. Caputo leads an experienced secondary that has allowed one passing touchdown.
“They’re fundamentally sound, they don’t make many mistakes,” said C.J. Beathard, the Iowa quarterback who was stifled for 4-for-15 passing as a freshman backup against the Badgers in 2013 but has been tremendous as a junior starter. “We’ve just got to go out there and play our best football. It’s going to be a grind. We know we’re not going to score every series.”
On offense, Wisconsin's had adversity. It began the year with concerns on the offensive line. And presumed Gordon successor Corey Clement will miss this game and maybe more after sports hernia surgery. But the line seemed to jell in last week’s 28-0 shutout of Hawaii, and a star was born in 220-pound running back Taiwan Deal — who was named Big Ten freshman of the week after his 147-yard, two-touchdown performance.
The quarterback is senior Joel Stave, a reliable but unspectacular cog who is 24-8 as a Badgers starter and has overcome his case of the yips last season. Stave went 11-for-14 for 139 yards at Iowa last season. He’s fifth in the Big Ten in pass efficiency, with seven touchdowns to two interceptions.
“He’s definitely managing the game a lot better,” Hawkeye safety Jordan Lomax said. “He’s making some pretty good throws.”
How Iowa can win
It’s hard to expose the Badgers. But in Beathard, the Hawkeyes have discovered a play-making leader. He leads the Big Ten in passing efficiency, and Iowa is the league's No. 2 scoring team at 37.8 points a game.
The Hawkeyes will need Beathard to be great, especially with injury question marks throughout the depth chart.
Beating Wisconsin starts with scoring against Wisconsin.
“We trust in our offense. We’re confident in each other,” said Jordan Canzeri, who more than likely will be the featured running back for the fourth straight game with LeShun Daniels Jr. battling back from a right-ankle injury. “We trust in the game plan the coaches have. We know it’s going to be tough, but there’s no doubt in our minds or anxiety.”
There are two more offensive musts.
One, Iowa needs to maintain its incredible red-zone rate. The Hawkeyes have scored 14 touchdowns and one field goal on 16 trips inside the opponents’ 20-yard line. Seven is way better than three.
Two, don’t fall behind.
“We have to come out 100 percent right from the start,” Canzeri said. “We can’t let our mental errors affect us. We can’t start slow and hurt ourselves.”
Ferentz has mastered the Badgers before, even in Camp Randall. Two of those seven Wisconsin home losses since 2004 have come against the Hawkeyes — both by 20-10 scores. So even if Beathard's offense is scoring here and there, it’s the Iowa defense that probably needs to win this game.
That means stopping the run, Wisconsin’s bread and butter since Barry Alvarez revived the program in the 1990s. It’s easier said than done. But the Hawkeyes will try to do it — and in the process, gain the upper hand in the Big Ten West.
“We’d love to make them one-dimensional, but they do a good job running the ball,” Lomax said. “It’s easy to say we want to make them one-dimensional, but you’ve got to go out there and make the plays and do it. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”
HAWKEYES' BIG TEN OPENER
Who: Iowa (4-0) at No. 19 Wisconsin (3-1)
Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.
Time, TV: 11:01 a.m, ESPN (announcers: Steve Levy and Brock Huard)
The line: Wisconsin by 6.5
Weather: Sunny with a high of 60 degrees; gusty winds of 20-30 mph possible