Whether they needed to be humbled or not, Wisconsin received a harsh wake-up call in their 24-21 loss to a then-unranked BYU team that was faster, smarter and stronger last Saturday in Madison.
The Badgers will get to answer that call with their first road trip of the season as they open their conference schedule against the Iowa Hawkeyes under the lights at Kinnick Stadium in the battle for the Heartland Trophy and a head start in the race for the Big Ten West.
When talking about his inexperienced defense, head coach Paul Chryst highlights their “firsts” — their first game, first start, first time facing adversity, etc. For four starters from the BYU game — Kayden Lyles, Caesar Williams, Scott Nelson and Faion Hicks — Saturday will be their first time playing away from Camp Randall.
“I won’t prepare any differently from what I’ve experienced,” Nelson said. “I kind of have a relative idea of what it’s going to be like. It will be different playing, of course, but we’re taking that same approach that we did the first three games, not trying to change anything. I just want to stay within myself and be confident.”
“Obviously that presents another test,” defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard said. “You don’t necessarily know how guys are going to respond going into hostile environments ... We’re just trying to get guys to stay relaxed, be calm, be confident and execute. You have to execute and play good football on the road.”
The loss to BYU put a huge dent in UW’s playoff aspirations, but the Badgers are still favorites to reach the Big Ten Championship. To get there, the Badgers must win the Big Ten West, a feat they’ve accomplished three out of the last four seasons. Iowa represents UW’s biggest divisional threat, so putting the loss behind them will be crucial in getting a leg up over their neighboring rivals. Chryst has emphasized the importance of responding productively to his players and how the Badgers' bounce back on Saturday will likely set the course for the rest of the season.
“The response has been good,” Nelson said. “A lot of guys are very focused. We know what’s at stake here. We’ve been able to take something away from that game and move on. It’s exciting. I’m excited for that opportunity, to play Iowa, play in the Big Ten, to get that going. I think our team will respond well.”
The battle for the Heartland Trophy is always a physical matchup, one that will likely be decided on the offensive and defensive lines — an area the Badgers uncharacteristically struggled with against BYU.
“They’re very good up front,” defensive end Matt Henningsen said. “They play big-boy football, they want to be physical up front. We have to beat them in the trenches.”
The Hawkeyes also boast one of the best tight end groups in the country with Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson.
“They’re very talented,” Leonhard said. “Obviously, Fant is one of the best, if not the best tight end in the country in my eyes. He’s extremely talented. What he can do in the pass game is pretty special. Then Hockenson is kind of a utility guy. They use him a lot of different ways. They can do a lot of things with him, so they’re guys that you have to know where they’re at.”
Even though the Badgers will be playing under the lights at prime time, they’re approaching it as just another game.
“We’re not trying to make it too much, make it more than what it is,” Nelson said. “We’re keeping it calm — it’s just another football game. It shouldn’t bring out more if it’s a night game; we should bring out more if it’s any game.”