In this strange college football season, the No. 19 Iowa Hawkeyes are less than a week away from completing an unlikely regular season without a major glitch.
Iowa is 5-2, winner of five straight and owner of the two trophies it has played for this year — the Floyd of Rosedale, thanks to a 35-7 win over Minnesota, and the Heroes, after a 26-20 win over Nebraska.
Now comes maybe the biggest prize of them all — the Heartland Trophy. The bronze pig has more history, but the brass bull has been the Hawkeyes’ biggest challenge in recent memory.
And, of course. the Badgers have won four in a row in his 93-game series.
Here are 5 Things about Wisconsin ahead of Saturday’s game (2:30 p.m., FS1).
1. Iowa week matters to Wisconsin
In Madison, they are not hiding how important this game is to the Badgers’ program and season.
“It’s Iowa Week,” tight end Jake Ferguson told the Wisconsin State Journal. “You’ve got to bring everything you’ve got or else you’re not going to come out with a win.
“I think a lot of the guys on this team know that. For those that don’t, they’ll find out this week.”
Wisconsin holds a 9-5 edge since the Heartland Trophy came into play in 2004. The series is much older — dating back to 1894 — and Wisconsin has a 48-43-2 edge.
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“We have a rivalry game ... we want to keep the pig (bull) here,” tackle Cole Van Lanen told the State Journal. “That’s got to be our motivation. And knowing our games are numbered, we want to end the season this right way.”
Keeping the Heartland Trophy would make this roller-coaster season feel a lot better.
“Everyone in this locker room knows what type (of game) that’s coming up this week, it’s a trophy game,” linebacker Jack Sanborn said. “... We know what type of game Iowa is, we know what type of game it’s going to be.”
2. Wisconsin’s strange season
Unlike the Hawkeyes, Wisconsin’s season has been filled with bumps and detours.
The Badgers are 2-2 in the Big Ten, 0-3 against COVID-19.
After a 45-7 win over Illinois to open the season, the next two games — at Nebraska and at home against Purdue — were canceled. A 49-11 win at Michigan followed the time off, then a 17-7 loss at Northwestern.
The Nov. 28 rivalry game against Minnesota also was lost to COVID-19, then last Saturday, a 14-6 loss to Indiana left the Badgers with a two-game losing streak.
The Badgers are averaging 26.8 points per game — only 6.5 the last two games, however — but allowing a Big Ten-best 12.3.
Quarterback Graham Mertz said the Badgers need to flush the latest loss.
“... you’ve got to turn on the tape, learn from it,” he told the State Journal. “... this next 24 hours is the biggest thing for this coming week. We can take it and learn from it ... but we can’t dwell on it.
“We can’t let it get into Tuesday, Wednesday. You’ve got to learn from it, turn the page and move on.”
3. Quarterback now: Graham Mertz
Mertz, a redshirt freshman from Overland Park, Kan., has quite a pedigree.
A 6-foot-3, 220-pounder, Mertz passed for 7,570 yards his last two years at Blue Valley North High School, leading his team to a state championship and state runner-up finish.
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Mertz played in two games at Wisconsin during his redshirt season, completing 9 of 10 passes for 73 yards. He ranks third in the Big Ten in passer efficiency (136.6) this season, completing 75 of 118 passes for 807 yards with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
His father, Ron, was an offensive lineman at Minnesota and his sisters played Division I basketball — Lauren for one season at Kansas State and Mya is a senior at Drake.
4. Quarterback future: Daniel Wright?
The only Iowan on the Badgers’ roster is Daniel Wright, a freshman quarterback from Sargeant Bluff-Luton.
The 6-8. 215-pounder is a walk-on who was headed to Division II University of Sioux Falls before Wisconsin offered him a spot on its roster.
“It was just a really good opportunity,” Wright told the Sioux City Journal when he picked the Badgers. “I decided I wanted to roll the dice and bet on myself.”
He is the only quarterback the Badgers went after last year.
“I think I can and I want to prove it and I think it’s a good opportunity for me,” he said.
Wright threw for more than 7,000 yards and 78 touchdowns during his high school career, including 2,997 yards and 32 TDs as a senior.
5. Wisconsin football history lesson
Like most Big Ten programs, Wisconsin football is steeped in history.
But the Badgers’ best years have been the past 30, starting with the hiring of Barry Alvarez in 1990. Alvarez went 118-73-4 during his career and was followed by Brett Bielema (68-24), Gary Anderson (19-7) and now Paul Chryst (48-12). The Badgers have won five division titles since 2011 (four under Chryst) and 14 Big Ten titles — three each under Alvarez and Bielema.
Wisconsin does own three national titles, too, but those go back a ways — 1906, 1928 and 1942. All three teams were 8-1-1.
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