Badgers/Hawkeyes Preview: Letdown Or No Letdown?

I shouldn’t have changed my mind.

No, I’m not talking about my decision in 1983 not to buy Duran Duran’s Seven and the Ragged Tiger after being snubbed by the cashier at Great American Music when I was 12 years old – that was a smart decision.

(Side note: Obviously the meteoric rise of digital music downloads over the last several years is the main cause for the extinction of record stores. But I don’t think you can completely ignore the fact that when they did exist, record stores were largely staffed by either insufferable music snobs or teenagers almost completely ignorant of any music more than two years old. As much as I miss the experience of record shopping or CD shopping, I don’t miss Musicland, Tower Records, Great American Music, Midland Records, Sam Goody, Record Town, or any of those other chain stores.)

Where was I? No, I’m talking about my reversal on last week’s Ohio State/Wisconsin game. In my preseason preview, I picked the Badgers to win, saying that I liked Wisconsin to make a statement against the overhyped Buckeyes. But after the Spartans defeated Bucky and what I felt was a less than inspiring Homecoming win over a truly awful Minnesota team, I backed off and went with the Buckeyes in my game preview. Big mistake.

Well, now I’m faced with the same exact problem. In September, I picked the Iowa Hawkeyes to hand the Badgers their only loss of the season Saturday in Iowa City. But after the Badgers’ exhilarating and impressive win over Ohio State, I’m loath to pick against Wisconsin. Not only did the 2010 Badgers and Bret Bielema prove themselves capable of playing and beating the big boys last week at Camp Randall, but I simply don’t want to be Mr. Negative for two consecutive weeks.

So how can the Badgers topple Iowa and claim the Heartland Trophy for just the third time in the seven year history of the brass bull? Let’s look at the top storylines of the game:

1. Run the ball. Duh. The biggest reason I backtracked on my preseason belief that Wisconsin could beat Ohio State was not only the 2010 Buckeyes’ ridiculously stout rush defense (they had been allowing just 78.7 yards per game), but also John Clay’s pedestrian numbers against the Buckeyes over the last two years. Apparently etching your offensive linemen’s numbers into your hair makes a difference, as Ohio State was not able to contain Clay for a third time, nor could they stop freshman sensation James White, whose success could singlehandedly keep paper companies in business. After last week’s slicing and dicing of Ohio State, who now leads the Big Ten in rushing defense? Iowa, allowing just 83.8 yards per game. But after last week, I’m betting that White and Clay will get theirs.

2. Avoid the letdown. Fans might fear that after last week’s enormous victory, the Badgers’ first win over a No. 1 ranked team since 1981, that Bielema and his boys would have a hard time getting up for the Hawkeyes. While there is no doubt that playing Iowa in Iowa City a week after hosting Ohio State is a huge challenge, the Badgers would love nothing more than to take down Iowa, the only team that Bucky has a current two-game losing streak against, the only team left on their schedule standing in their way beaten them and a realistic shot at a Big Ten title, and the only team to have its logo tattooed on their head coach’s body. Not to mention that whoever wins the Heartland Trophy Saturday gets to hold on to it until 2013, the next time Wisconsin and Iowa will play under the new Big Ten divisions that take effect next year. If Bucky loses, it will because Iowa outplays them, not because they couldn’t get motivated.

3. Tolzien must avoid the turnover. Yes, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin quarterback Scott Tolzien have eerily similar statistics this season. Through six games, Stanzi has completed 99 of 145 passes for a 68.3 completion percentage. Through seven games, Tolzien has completed 105 of 148 passes for a 70.9 completion percentage. Stanzi has thrown for 1,474 yards. Tolzien for 1,353 yards. What’s not so similar are the quarterbacks’ touchdown-to-interception ratios: Stanzi has thrown 13 touchdowns and only two interceptions in 2010, while Tolzien has mustered only 7 touchdowns while throwing three picks. And Tolzien had an awful day last year against Iowa, completing just 15 of 25 passes with no less than three interceptions and no touchdowns in a depressing 20-10 loss. And that game was in Madison. Tolzien has never started a game at Kinnick Stadium, and he must have an efficient – not great, but efficient and turnover-free – day if the Badgers hope to knock off the Hawkeyes for the first time since 2007.

If the Badgers were at home, I would take them to win this game in a heartbeat. But on the road, I have to hesitate. As I write this, the Hawkeyes are favored by six. Unfortunately, that sounds about right. Final score prediction in September: Iowa 23, Wisconsin 14. Revised final score prediction: Iowa 27, Wisconsin 20.


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