Sunday, October 24, 2010

#13 Wisconsin Badgers beat #15 Iowa Hawkeyes

I am breaking my Sunday Funday post rule two weeks in a row because the Wisconsin Badgers registered their second impressive victory in as many weeks. After knocking off the #1 Ohio State Buckeyes at home last week, the Badgers registered an even more impressive 31-30 victory over the Iowa Hawkeyes in Iowa City in front of 70,585 people.

Earlier in the week, Wisconsin Badger head coach Bret Bielema talked to his players about not letting down after a big victory. Bielema pointed to the South Carolina Gamecocks. After the Gamecocks knocked off the #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide, they lost the following week to the lowly Kentucky Wildcats.

There was no such let down by the Badgers against the Hawkeyes though. Bielema and the Badgers avenged consecutive losses to Iowa (38-16 in Iowa City in 2008 and 20-10 in Madison in 2009) to come out on top 31-30. The win over Iowa allowed Bielema to improve his career record at Wisconsin to 45-15 and 3-2 against Iowa. The victory also marked the first time since 2004 that Wisconsin beat ranked opponents in consecutive weeks (beat #18 Ohio State in Columbus, OH and #5 Purdue in West Lafayette, IN).

The Badgers got out to a 3-0 lead on a 33-yard field goal by Philip Welch. That might seem like a good thing but the kick actually snapped 23 consecutive touchdowns scored by the Badgers in the red zone (not counting killing the clock twice). The field goal ended up being the smallest discussion point of the day though.

If the Badgers hadn't won, some decisions by Bielema might have been second-guessed. In the third quarter the Badgers were leading 13-10, facing a 4th and 1 from the 2-yard line. Instead of attempting a field goal, Bielema gave the ball to Badgers running back John Clay who ran in for a touchdown behind left tackle Gabe Carimi and left guard Justin Moffitt. One of the reasons Bielema decided to go for the touchdown as opposed to attempting the field is that Carimi and Moffitt form possibly the best left side of an offensive line in the nation.

Even crazier than the 4th and 1 call above was the fake punt call by Bielema. With a little more than 6 minutes remaining, the Badgers trailed by 6 points and faced a 4th and 4 from their own 26-yard line. Bielema shocked everyone by dialing up a fake punt that saw Badger punter Brad Nortman scamper for 17 yards and a first down. The Badgers knew that the Hawkeyes sometimes only rushed two people on special teams to set-up the punt return and picked the perfect time to call the fake punt. After converting another 4th down along the way, the Badgers capped off that impressive drive with a Monte Ball 8-yard touchdown run to take a 31-30 lead with 1:06 remaining in the game.

Unfortunately for the Badgers, the game was far from over. The Hawkeyes actually got a first down on a quarterback sneak by Ricky Stanzi at the Badger 39-yard line with 12 second remaining. That quarterback sneak left the Hawkeyes with 1st and 10 from the Badger 39-yard line with 12 seconds left in the game and 1 timeout in their pocket.

In the NFL the clock keeps rolling as long as a player stays in bounds, but that is not the case in college. For those of you that don't know, in college the clock stops on every first down until the ball is spotted giving the offense a few "free seconds" to regroup. That meant if Stanzi rushed for the first down in the pros, the Hawkeyes would have been forced to take a timeout, otherwise the clock would have run out before they got off another snap.

Keep that in mind because Iowa Hawkeyes head coach Kirk Ferentz had two options because of the college first down rule. Ferentz could let the clock run down to 3 second and attempt a 56-yard field goal. That is the less desirable option because Hawkeye kicker Mike Meyer doesn't have that strong of a leg. Otherwise, Ferentz could hold his timeout and spike the ball on first down. That would leave the Hawkeyes with roughly 8 seconds to complete a pass and use their final timeout to give Meyer a closer field goal chance to win the game. Ferentz inexplicably choose another option and used his last timeout, which left the Hawkeyes with 12 second and no timeouts. On the next play the Hawkeyes completed a pass but the receiver was tackled in bounds so time ran out and the Badgers won 31-30.

You can point to a number of reasons, besides Bielema's gutsy play calls, to why the Badgers beat the Hawkeyes but three stand out. First, sophomore running back Montee Ball took being demoted from 2nd string to 3rd string (in favor of freshman James White) in stride. This week Ball made big plays in crucial situations with White out with a knee injury. Second, Badgers quarterback Scott Tolzien atoned for 3 second half interceptions last year against the Hawkeyes by going 20 for 26 for 205 yards with 1 touchdown and 1 interception this time around. Third, despite facing double teams almost the entire game, all-world defensive lineman J.J. Watt had another huge game. Watt registered 5 tackles (2 for a loss) and 1 sack. All of that is impressive but it is Watt's blocked extra point in the first quarter that was the difference against the Hawkeyes.

The Badgers had to pull almost everything out of their bag of tricks to beat the Hawkeyes. The Badgers needed a fake punt, a blocked extra point, and a couple other 4th down conversions to get by the Hawkeyes. The Badgers survived 8 lead changes and registered their first 4th quarter comeback since 2008 (beat Cal Poly 36-35 in overtime) and their first 4th quarter comeback against the Hawkeyes since 1969.

To say this was a big win for the Badgers is an understatement. Iowa was undefeated at home so far this season (4-0) and 48-9 at home since 2002. It is well chronicled by now but still worth mentioning that Badger head coach Bret Bielema played at Iowa and still has an Iowa tattoo on his leg. Bielema stands by the tattoo saying it is a part of what makes him who he is today, which I respect. What I respect even more is that Bielema finally notched his first road win over a ranked Big Ten opponent after failing in his previous 5 opportunities and ran his road record in the Big Ten to 8-10.

With Nebraska joining the Big Ten (pushing it to 12 teams by the way), the series record between Wisconsin and Iowa stands at 42-42-2. Although their all-time record is a tie, the Badgers get to hold on to the Heartland Trophy until their next meeting, which isn't till 2013. The Heartland Trophy will provide the Badgers ample bragging rights over the Hawkeyes in recruiting battlers and make their 2013 game one for the ages.

One final footnote on the game, a bye could not come at a better time for the Badgers. Going into the Iowa game the Badgers were without wide receiver Nick Toon and defensive tackle Jordan Kohout. During the first half the Badgers lost starting tight end Lance Kendricks to an ankle injury and often used back-up running back James White to a knee injury. Kendricks was injured on a kickoff return, which begs the question, why is the best tight end on the Badgers blocking on special teams? The Badgers also lost starting center Peter Konz to an ankle injury. Somehow with all the injuries mentioned above, Bret Bielema and company still managed to beat the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.

While the Badgers are off next week, the Hawkeyes can really make things interesting if they knock off Michigan State (8-0 overall, 4-0 in the Big Ten) at home next weekend. A Hawkeye win would create a 3-way tie atop the Big Ten between Michigan State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.

The Badgers still have a couple tough tests on the schedule but back-to-back victories over Ohio State at home and Iowa on the road might be the best two weeks of football in the entire history of the Wisconsin Badger program. Congrats to Bret Bielema and company, you made it a Sunday Funday in Cheesehead country for two weeks in a row now.

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