The championship round begins
The stage is set.
For the next two weekends, Kinnick Stadium will become center ring. This Saturday, it's No. 13 Hawkeyes and the No. 10 Wisconsin Badgers. In two weeks, it's Hawkeyes and No. 8 Michigan State.
Any one of these teams could be your Big Ten champion and Rose Bowl representative. So could Ohio State, which has just the one loss last weekend in Madison. And, heck, Purdue is undefeated in the Big Ten, ending Tim Brewster's misery in Minnesota last Saturday.
The Hawkeyes (5-1, 2-0 Big Ten) jumped into the championship round with Saturday's 38-28 victory over Michigan (5-2, 1-2). The Hawkeyes led 35-14 early in the second half. They ended up hanging on and now will let it all hang out in two games that will take someone toward Pasedena and someone else to the Capital One Bowl.
"That was tough," quarterback Ricky Stanzi said. "That was a tough ballgame. That was a tough team. They were fired up and the crowd was into it. We had to stick it out there at the end and I think that's a good experience."
Suddenly, halfway home, the Hawkeyes in control of their own own destiny. The potholes are a mile deep. Wisconsin just knocked off No. 1 Ohio State. Michigan State is the new Big Ten banner carrier at No. 8. And a date with No. 11 Ohio State looms Nov. 20. The Buckeyes are a team Kirk Ferentz's Hawkeyes have beaten just once.
Leaping into the vacancy left by Michigan and Ohio State, the Hawkeyes, Badgers and Spartans are by record the best of the rest and in the unlikely position of guarding against thinking about things like Pasadena and the meaning of a victory over one of the Big Ten bluebloods.
"We handled ourselves well in the [Michigan Stadium] environment, and that's what you want to do," Stanzi said. "You want to show poise, handle it and weather the storm. We can evaluate what it means to the season afterwards."
UW coach Bret Bielema, a former Hawkeye D-linemen, knows his record against Iowa.
“This is a game that, I believe in my career, we’re 2-2," Bielema said after running back John Clay's 104 yards led the Badgers over OSU. "Iowa is a program, much like Ohio State, that we have a lot of respect for because of the way they handle their business, the way they execute.
"There is a great deal of respect, but we all want the same thing. That’s what this week will be about, getting a 'W.'"
The flashdance part of the Hawkeyes' schedule is over, too. Really, flashdance is what Michigan is at this point under coach Rich Rodriguez. It's a fancy spread offense with a runner (Denard Robinson) and passer (Tate Forcier) but not a lot of substance (defense).
The Hawkeyes return to a familiar foe, a fellow arbiter of caveman football. May the team with the biggest, strongest O-line and best running back win.
Wisconsin has Clay, a 6-foot-1, 248-pounder who is No. 2 in rushing in the Big Ten with 796 yards. The Badgers also have true freshman James White, a 5-10, 198-pounder who's nine TDs trail only Clay's 11 in the conference.
The Hawkeyes counter with sophomore Adam Robinson, whose 5-9, 200 seems to blow up like the Grinch's heart on gamedays.
Robinson is fourth in the Big Ten with 623 yards. His 129 carries are third in the conference, but he's holding up OK. He said he was sore after Saturday's career-high 31.
"Pretty sore," Robinson said with a smile. "Similar to after the Penn State game [when he had a then-career high 28 carries]. Tomorrow, I'm going to get up, get some ice, go sit in the whirlpool, try to get healed up for next week."
The Hawkeyes will need their lone running back for the championship round.