The Badgers entered the season with experience, perhaps the best offensive line in the country, a Heisman Trophy candidate in sophomore running back Jonathan Taylor and plenty of talent in the front seven on defense.
That put Wisconsin in the early discussion for the College Football Playoff, but along came BYU last week, beating the Badgers 24-21 in Madison as Rafael Gaglianone missed a 42-yard field goal that would have forced overtime.
That dropped Wisconsin from No. 6 to No. 18 in the AP poll.
The Badgers have no time to dwell on that. Now comes what looks like the key game in the Big Ten West, with Wisconsin headed to play at Iowa for the Heartland Trophy on Saturday. It is the conference opener for both teams.
“You don’t ever want to rely on losing as a source to go win,” Wisconsin offensive lineman Michael Deiter said. “That’s never going to end well. But if you do have hiccups … it should be a feeling that you never want to feel again.”
Iowa is 3-0, with wins over Northern Illinois, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. The Hawkeyes held Iowa State standout running back David Montgomery to 44 yards, and they rank tied for second in the country in rushing defense, allowing 42.0 yards per game.
That sets up a big-time matchup against Taylor, a sophomore who has rushed for 100-plus yards in all three games this season and ranks second in the country in rushing with 171.7 yards per game.
“We just played an outstanding running back two weeks ago. I mentioned he might be the best in the country. If he’s not, it might be the one we’re playing this week,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
“This guy is just a tremendous football player, too. It’s unusual when you play two guys of this caliber within a two-week span. That’s what we’re facing. They’re not the same exact runner, but I can’t imagine many guys in the country better than either of these guys. We witnessed this, how good Taylor was firsthand last year. He is really a great player.”
Taylor rushed for 157 yards in last season’s 38-14 victory over Iowa in Madison.
Iowa doesn’t have a running back with Taylor’s cache, but its pass offense started to click in last week’s 38-14 win over Northern Iowa after average performances by quarterback Nate Stanley in the two first games. Though the Hawkeyes were playing an FCS team, Stanley threw with accuracy, completing 23 of 28 passes for 309 yards and one touchdown.
In the two previous games, he completed only 52.9 percent of his throws.
Last year against Wisconsin, Stanley was 8-of-24 passing for 41 yards and one interception.
“In this series, we kind of know who they are, I think they know who we are,” Ferentz said of a typically strong Wisconsin defense that is 11th nationally in total defense (275.7 yards allowed per game).
“In the case of Wisconsin, they’ve got DNA that has been pretty consistent. At least from a preparation standpoint, when we look at film, we can say, ‘OK, this is probably what we can expect.’ Now the challenge is how do you crack the safe? It’s hard because these guys are really good at what they do.”
One of Stanley’s favorite targets is junior Noah Fant, whose 14 career touchdown catches are the most in school history for a tight end. He has nine touchdowns in his past 10 games at Kinnick Stadium.
The Wisconsin defense is led by 2017 All-American linebacker T.J. Edwards, safety D’Cota Dixon and nose tackle Olive Sagapolu. Iowa’s defensive crew is led up front by end Anthony Nelson and A.J. Espenesa, who is tied for first in the Big Ten with four sacks.
Given the strength of both defenses, this could be a low-scoring, grind-it-out affair, unless Stanley or Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook (43 of 68 for 595 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions) can find some magic through the air in this battle for early supremacy in the Big Ten West.
“We’re going to approach this week of practice with a new mindset,” Taylor said. “We know that we’re going to have to work harder for everything we want.”