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Tom Oates: Badgers regain footing with gritty win over division rival Hawkeyes

September 23, 2018

IOWA CITY, Iowa − After Black Saturday exposed the Big Ten Conference as a paper tiger last week, the real fallout became apparent.

Seven Big Ten teams lost to unranked opponents on Sept. 15, heaping ridicule upon the conference from coast to coast. But hidden within that unsightly statistic was this nugget: Five of the seven teams that lost were from the Big Ten’s West Division.

It was an eye-opening end to a dismal non-conference season for the West, which was thought to be on the upswing this season. Instead, the West is now destined to spend the rest of the season trying the shed its label as the worst division among the power-five conferences.

The results of the season’s first three weeks also led to the inescapable conclusion that the race for the Big Ten West title was destined to be over almost as soon as it began. Indeed, the division title figured to be determined sometime prior to midnight Saturday night.

And, in all likelihood, it was.

The University of Wisconsin’s hard-earned, 28-17 victory over Iowa Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium erased the memory of its embarrassing loss to unranked BYU last week and put the Badgers solidly in the driver’s seat for the division title going forward.

In a game that was befitting for the traditional rivals and the two best teams − by a mile − in the division, the game was close all the way and 18th-ranked UW didn’t take the lead for good against previously undefeated Iowa until quarterback Alex Hornibrook fired a 17-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver A.J. Taylor with just under a minute to play. Hornibrook’s third touchdown pass of the game saved the day after Iowa had taken the lead late in the third quarter.

Along the way, Iowa exposed UW’s young secondary time and again and had enough defensive might to slow the UW offense for much of the night, but it was the Badgers who prevailed in a display of grit and determination that many questioned they still had after the BYU loss. Don’t worry, it’s still there. Every time UW absolutely, positively had to make a play, it did.

Now, the Badgers have put themselves in prime position to get back to the Big Ten Championship game for the third consecutive year, even if their conference record is only 1-0 at this point.

Of course, there will be the usual blather about how there’s a lot of football left to be played, how the regular season still has eight weeks left, how it’s the Big Ten and any team can beat any team. Make no mistake, though, everything was on the line in this game and now UW essentially has a two-game lead over Iowa heading into the rest of the conference schedule.

That’s because the Badgers own the tie-breaker in the event the teams end up sharing the division title. Having the tiebreaker in your pocket is always critical, but it is doubly important this season because of the sorry state of the division.

With every other team in the West struggling against lesser competition out of the game, both UW and Iowa will be heavily favored to sweep through the rest of their division games. That means the only chance Iowa has to catch UW will likely depend on the results of their crossover games. The Hawkeyes have a significant advantage over the Badgers in that regard, which is why Saturday night’s game was so important.

Both teams must play at 10th-ranked Penn State, so that’s a wash. But the Badgers must also play at 19th-ranked Michigan in addition to having a home game against hapless Rutgers. Iowa’s other two crossover games are against Maryland and at Indiana, two games it will be favored to win.

If UW can win the games it is supposed to win and split at Michigan and Penn State, it would finish 8-1 in the conference and there is no way Iowa can leapfrog it. And if Iowa takes a second conference loss at Penn State, the Badgers can lose to both Michigan and Penn State and probably still win the division.

Of course, the Badgers will be thinking of bigger things now that they’ve put the angst of the BYU loss behind them. They’ll want to run the table, which is the only way they would have any shot of going to the College Football Playoff, and even that is remote.

UW’s victory wasn’t a thing of beauty, though no one who understands this rivalry and these programs expected it to be. The Badgers have now won five straight games at Kinnick, but that domination means nothing. None of those wins have been easy and Kinnick can be a tough place to play. Ask Ohio State about its trip to Iowa City last year.

To be sure, UW still has much to improve upon if its hopes to parlay its big win into the division title. The offense was again plagued by holding penalties and dropped passes. The lack of pass rush remains a problem and the inexperienced secondary took its lumps for the first time this season.

The game was typical of the UW-Iowa series, with physical play along both lines, hard running and mostly play-action passes. As usual, scores came grudgingly.

UW had to hold on for dear life in the first half, which ended with a 7-7 tie, and then matched Iowa score for score in the second. But when push came to shove, as it always does in these meetings, it was the Badgers who overcame the riled up Hawkeyes and their raucous crowd to put themselves in the pole position in the division.

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