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IOWA CITY — The Hawkeyes and the Badgers engage in their annual bloody knuckles-o-rama this weekend. It’s a game where yards are precious and your weightroom warriors come to the fore.
Let’s make Iowa fullback Drake Kulick the unofficial spokesman of bloody knuckles-o-rama. It’s No. 20 Iowa (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) and the No. 8 Badgers (9-0, 6-0). In the last four seasons, the winner of this game has scored 28 (pretty good), 26 (not bad), 10 (oh) and 17 (OK).
It’s a fullback game. And just last week, fullbacks from both teams had days. Wisconsin’s Alec Ingold scored three touchdowns in UW’s 45-17 victory over Indiana last week.
Kulick, a senior and one half of Iowa’s fullback duo, scored the first TD of his career in the Hawkeyes’ 55-24 victory over Ohio State. The 2-yard TD pass from QB Nate Stanley to Kulick gave Iowa a 45-17 lead over the Buckeyes. It was Kulick’s third touch of the season (three receptions for 31 yards) and just the eighth of his career.
These moments are gold for fullbacks.
“I actually talked to Nate on Friday (before the game) and I was like, ‘Dude, if Brian (Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz) calls this play, throw me the ball,’” Kulick said. “I said, ‘I don’t care if I’m open or not, throw me the ball.’ I only got one shot at this.”
It’s not about touches for Kulick. His job is leading Akrum Wadley through the line of scrimmage. Coaches lean on fullbacks to set a physical tone in practice. Let’s do that here.
“We’re focused, we’re going to have a great week of preparation and we’re going to go in there hungry,” Kulick said. “They have our trophy and we don’t plan on leaving there without it.
“We’re going to go in and give them a 60-minute fight. The best man is going to win. It’s going to be a heavyweight fight.”
After Iowa’s 55-24 domination of Ohio State last week, the Badgers are the Big Ten’s best College Football Playoff hope, ranked eighth after Tuesday night’s release of the CFP rankings. Guess what? Iowa was ranked No. 20 in the CFP, so now you have to pay at least a little attention to those.
The Badgers face Iowa and Michigan in back-to-back weeks. Up until now, Wisconsin has seen just two teams with winning records (Northwestern, a 33-24 victory, and Florida Atlantic, a 31-14 victory). The Badgers tried with BYU, but the Cougars are a 2-8 flat tire this season.
To the Badgers credit, however, they’ve uncorked on just about everyone, outscoring opponents by 22.8 points per game (seventh in the nation for average margin of victory).
The Badgers lead the Big Ten in rushing with 244.8 yards per game. True freshman running back Jonathan Taylor leads the league with 152.0 yards a game (1,368 yards for the year and 12 rushing TDs, leading all FBS freshmen in both categories). The 6-0, 214-pounder is 51 yards a game ahead of Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, the No. 2 rusher in the Big Ten,
“If he stopped right now, which would be OK with me, I mean, he’s already had a great season for anybody, let alone a true freshman,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said jokingly. “Just really, really impressive.”
Both teams have some injury news going into Saturday (2:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC). Iowa announced Tuesday that junior safety Brandon Snyder did suffer another ACL tear of his left knee (the same one he tore last spring) and will be out for the rest of the season. A medical hardship waiver is unlikely for Snyder, Ferentz said.
UW will be without wide receiver Quintez Cephus (leg) and linebacker Chris Orr (left leg). Safety D’Cota Dixon (right leg) is questionable. Defensive lineman Garrett Rand (foot) might also be out.
Let’s go back to Kulick and the fullback thing. That’s a story unto itself.
It’s not been an easy year for Kulick. Your big memory of the Muscatine native came in last year’s finale against Nebraska. It was early in the game. Kulick threw a block and his body went one way and his lower left leg went the other. It ended in one of those John Deere Gator cart-offs that no one wants to see.
The takeaway from that moment was Kulick exhorting his teammates after he was loaded in the back. You read his lips. “I didn’t break my leg for no [bleep].”
“It wasn’t that long ago when he was out there in a lot of pain,” Ferentz said. “You think about the rehab and all, and he’s been in pain. I think he’s doing pretty good right now, but early in the season it was hard for him. And again, I think that’s part of the story a lot of people miss sometimes. I don’t want to talk about injuries, but most of our players have to endure an injury at some point in their career. It’s a lonely feeling. It’s a hard feeling.”
Running back Akrum Wadley has had a front-row seat for Iowa fullbacks Kulick and junior Brady Ross, whose season also started slowly after he suffered a broken hand in camp.
“They are some different dudes. Their mindset, they just want to go hit somebody,” Wadley said. “Even if the play isn’t designed that way, they just want to go do it.
“You need guys like that. They love being physical. They love being physical. They’re straight dudes. There’s nothing fake about them. They’re different.
“They’re the type of guys you’d want to take if you were going to go fight somebody. They’re not going to play. I’m talking like brawl, like fist fighting.”
Well, this is the Iowa-Wisconsin game.
One interesting question coming out of the Hawkeyes’ victory over Ohio State — their first since 2004 and the most points put on an Urban Meyer Ohio State team — was on Iowa’s offense and whether or not it finally found an identity. And by “identity,” let’s just ask where that running game had been all season? The Hawkeyes gouged OSU for 243 rushing yards, a season-high for Iowa and second-most against the Buckeyes this season.
Fullbacks were in for around 20 snaps against Ohio State. You saw more of them against Minnesota, too. When Iowa’s offense is right, the fullbacks aren’t a centerpiece, but they’re an important cog in setting physical tone and, yeah, identity.
“I think Saturday was a big step,” Kulick said. “Against Minnesota, we struggled, we had a lot of three-and-outs (a season-high eight), we had more punts against Minnesota than we’ve had all year (a season-high nine).
“The message coming in the next week was ‘You guys have to get better, we have to focus on the details. We’ve got to find exactly what kind of offense we’re going to be.’ We took the challenge.”
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