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It’s just this simple: Iowa’s football team will enter its bye week with a boom or a bust.
How big is the Hawkeyes’ game against Wisconsin Saturday morning in Kinnick Stadium? Oh, it’s just something they pretty much have to win to make a repeat trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten’s title game.
There couldn’t be a much better time for Iowa to continue its recent improvement than Saturday. Wisconsin — and not unbeaten and top 10-ranked Nebraska — is the West team taken most-seriously by the college football world today.
You know Bill Parcells’ oft-quoted comment, “You are what your record says you are.” Well, not always.
The Badgers are 1-2 in the Big Ten, trailing 3-0 Nebraska, 3-1 Iowa and 2-1 Northwestern. But they beat LSU and Michigan State. They lost 14-7 at Michigan, and 30-23 in overtime to Ohio State in Madison Saturday night. All four of those foes were in the top 10 at the time Wisconsin played them. Michigan and Ohio State were in the top four.
Maybe Michigan-Ohio State will be a classic, but for now, the OSU-Wisconsin game will be hard to top as the conference’s Game of the Year. It had a higher television rating than Game 1 of the Dodgers-Cubs series.
The Badgers gained the kind of respect in defeat that Iowa received after it lost in a slugfest against Michigan State in Indy last December.
The Buckeyes had been allowing averages of 10.8 points and 246 yards. But Wisconsin put up 313 first-half yards on the way to 450. But it had too many field goals instead of touchdowns, and led 16-6 at halftime instead of 20-6 or 24-6 or 28-6.
Defensively, no previous OSU opponent came close to matching what Wisconsin presented to the Buckeyes.
However, the Badgers can afford no more gallant efforts that ended without a triumph. If they lose at Iowa, they’d need a crazy series of events to get the West crown.
If Wisconsin wins, though, and then defeats Nebraska in Madison the following Saturday? That’s a clear path to Indy and a probable rematch with Ohio State.
So what about Iowa? What about a team that has key tight end George Kittle with a sprained foot and an offensive line that may again be playing musical chairs this week, depending on its own health situation?
That was a pretty surgical performance at Purdue, but it was Purdue. Bad team. However, the criticism of the Hawkeyes playing to the level of their opposition didn’t wash Saturday. Their first-team units buried the Boilermakers in the 49-35 win. There was a lot to like.
But all that matters now is Wisconsin. Beat the Badgers, and Iowa goes into the bye week knowing it can win its way to Indy. Heal up for a week, and watch Nebraska try its luck at Wisconsin on Oct. 29, the week before the Huskers go to Ohio State.
Forget the manufactured traveling trophy silliness. Iowa-Wisconsin never needed a brass bull or any other trinket. It’s a blood-and-guts, purely Midwestern football series that’s all about brawn, not brass.
The Badgers have the lead in the series by the narrowest of margins, 44-43-2. Wisconsin won by one and two points in its last two visits to Kinnick. The Hawkeyes’ glorious 2015 season was built on the back of their 10-6 win in Madison.
Saturday’s winner will be alive and well in the division championship picture. The loser goes to the discount rack.
The Hawkeyes, in their eighth game of the season, are playing their first heavyweight. They got knocked down twice in Kinnick, but have gotten back up.
Will they stagger into their bye week crying “We coulda been a contender,” or will they be a contender? We’ll have our answer on Saturday.