IOWA CITY — All news is local, and so it is that we’re writing about the Iowa-Wisconsin game rather than LSU-Alabama.
On Saturday afternoon at 2:30, American football fans will be glued to the No. 1-vs.-No. 2 game in Tuscaloosa on CBS. A half-hour later, the Hawkeyes will play the Badgers on Fox and fans in 48 states will be unconcerned.
But it matters in Iowa and Wisconsin. Oh, how it matters. The season is on the line for both.
Even if unbeaten Penn State beats unbeaten Minnesota earlier Saturday in what surprisingly is the Big Ten’s Game of the Year to date, the West Division-leading Gophers will be two games clear of the loser in Madison with just three to go. The winner in Camp Randall Stadium will be a game ahead of the loser with the head-to-head tiebreaker in its pocket.
So the loser is toast when it comes to the West title. Which means the season, no matter how it gets spun, becomes hollow.
If Iowa falls Saturday, it can sweep its final three regular-season games, win the Holiday Bowl, and have a 10-3 record that looks pretty spiffy. However, it would be 0-3 against the Marquee Three of Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin, and this would be a fourth-straight season without a West championship.
A sign in the Hawkeyes’ practice facility says “The Road to Indianapolis Travels Through These Doors.” Is the sentiment correct behind the poorly worded sign? Or will Iowa City again be as disconnected from Indy as key lime pie is from Listerine?
Should the Hawkeyes leave Wisconsin with an upset win, hope to get to the Big Ten title game would stay alive. If the Gophers lose to Penn State, that hope turns into an expectation.
“Obviously, we want to finish in Indianapolis,” Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley said Tuesday. “Coach always preaches one game at a time, one day at a time. I think everybody’s bought into that. But at the same time, we all realize we have the opportunity to do something special. For us to do that, we have to start with this game.”
Yes, it’s the season hinging on this battle against an opponent with six wins in its last seven games against the Hawkeyes. It’s a game at the site where, two years ago, Iowa’s offense was more thoroughly muted than any in the Kirk Ferentz era.
Even with its current two-game losing streak, you look at Wisconsin’s No. 1-ranked defense and Iowa’s offense through two-thirds of this season and wonder how the Hawkeyes can get the yardage, the first downs, the points necessary to win.
In 2015, when Iowa was the best of the West, it won here 10-6. Asking the Hawkeyes’ sturdy defense to hold Jonathan Taylor (5,180 career rushing yards over 35 games) and the Badgers’ offense to six points Saturday, however, is unreasonable.
But Illinois did move the ball in its 24-23 stunner over the Badgers on Oct. 19. The following week, Ohio State used its otherworldly advantage in talent to pull away in the second half in its 38-7 victory.
Iowa’s defense, which has performed well enough for the team to be 8-0 rather than 6-2, must now play its best game of the year. It has to keep Wisconsin from its patented 12-play, 75-yard, six-minute touchdown drives. Then, it’s on the offense to play more efficiently in a big Big Ten game than it has in the last two years.
This will be grim, cold, rough, nasty football, with most of the second half played under a dark sky. This isn’t for Nielsen ratings, this isn’t for SportsCenter, this isn’t for a presidential audience. This is for survival, to cling to the chance for this to not be just another season.
“I think it’s important this week that we fit our pads,” Ferentz said, “and we’d better get them fit really well and really tight because these (Wisconsin) guys are going to help fit them on Saturday, I know that. So we’d better be ready to go.”
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The Hawkeyes were minus-3 in turnovers against Michigan, minus-2 against Penn State. If they’re minus-anything at Wisconsin, they can start planning for late December in San Diego rather than early December in Indianapolis.
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