Hawkeyes know the stakes: Beat Wisconsin, or Iowa falls out of Big Ten race

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — Not every Iowa football player wanted to come out and say it this week, but it was clearly on their minds.

How important is Saturday’s 3 p.m. game at Wisconsin? Is this the proverbial “must-win” for a team with designs on the Big Ten Conference championship?

That was the final question directed at Hawkeye senior quarterback Nate Stanley on Tuesday.

“For the goals that we have,” Stanley said, “I guess you could call it that.”

Yes you could.

No. 18 Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) needs to snap a three-game losing streak against No. 16 Wisconsin (6-2, 3-2) or spend a fourth consecutive year watching some other Big Ten West team playing for the overall league title in Indianapolis.

“During our bye week, we talked about the importance of this game and that the road to the Big Ten championship for us starts with this game. But this week we’re just really focusing on this game,” Stanley said earlier. “We kind of put the bigger picture to rest for a couple of weeks.”

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Quarterback Nate Stanley and the Iowa offense were buried by Wisconsin in their last trip to Camp Randall Stadium two years ago. The Hawkeyes look to erase those memories, and stay in contention for a Big Ten Conference title, when they return to Madison on Saturday.

That’s a smart approach. Wisconsin demands Iowa’s full attention. Minnesota, next week’s opponent, can wait.

No Hawkeye can forget what happened the last time the team traveled to Madison. That was a 38-14 beatdown that left a mark.

“Still embarrassed about it. We definitely have a little revenge on our minds this week,” said Iowa cornerback Michael Ojemudia, a fifth-year senior.

“Getting that (Heartland) trophy back in here can erase all that, to be honest. It can set the slate clean.”

Wisconsin has dropped back-to-back games at Illinois and Ohio State. The Badgers are also coming off a bye week. And they’re returning to Camp Randall Stadium, where they’re 5-0 this season and have blitzed opponents 124-3 in the first halves of those games.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows his team needs to start strong in order to avoid being victim No. 6.

“It's hard to have a balanced, patient game plan when you do (fall behind early),” Ferentz said.

“The message there is if you're not ready to go, these guys know what to do with it. They're going to be ready to go. They've demonstrated that time and time again.”

Iowa ramped up the physicality in practices early this week, preparing for a Wisconsin rushing attack that features star junior running back Jonathan Taylor. The Badger defense is allowing the fewest yards per game in the nation, at 223.5. There is no mystery about what the Hawkeyes are about to face. It’s the same style of football they play.

“They want to run the ball, be physical and play hard-nosed defense. And that’s kind of our same brand as well. So whichever team can be more successful at that is going to come out on top,” Iowa safety Jack Koerner said. “So we’ve just got to beat them at our own game, which is their own game as well.

“They’ve had our number the past few years. And obviously it’s a trophy game. We haven’t had that trophy here for a few years now. As soon as we beat them, then we can start to look at the next opponent.”

Ojemudia said defensive coordinator Phil Parker motivated his players with this question: “If you knew at the beginning of the year that you had four games to get to the Big Ten championship, what would you do for it?”

The response: “A lot of guys going in to this week are thinking, ‘What more can I do to win this game and push us forward?’” Ojemudia said.

“It’s going to be a long game,” Ojemudia continued. “We know going in to this game it’s going to go to the wire. There’s going to be ups and downs, definitely. But if we stay strong and take it to the fourth quarter and make the plays to win the game in the fourth quarter, I think that’s the best edge for us this game.”

The Hawkeyes were already down and out by the fourth quarter two years ago at Camp Randall. But they’ve been competitive in every game this season, thanks to a defense that is allowing only 10.1 points per game. Iowa’s two losses are by a combined 12 points. They’re going to get a chance to prove that the 2019 Hawkeyes are mentally stronger than that 2017 version.

“In the back of a lot of the guys’ minds, they know the feeling of being trumped by Wisconsin is not a good feeling, because they do exactly what we do,” Ojemudia said.

“So we take it personally when they do what we do better than us.”

No. 18 IOWA (6-2, 3-2) at No. 16 WISCONSIN (6-2, 3-2)

When: 3:05 p.m. Saturday

Where: Camp Randall Stadium, Madison, Wis.

TV: Fox (Tim Brando, Spencer Tillman, Coley Harvey)

Line: Badgers by 9.5

Weather: Mostly cloudy and 40 degrees; 10 percent chance of rain; winds from southwest at 7 mph

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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