A week after an emotional victory over then-No.1 Ohio State, the Badgers were stricken with four offensive starters knocked or inactive for the game, a hostile environment against a precision quarterback and a team with its sights set on a BCS game.
So when Wisconsin senior quarterback Scott Tolzien threw a costly interception with time winding down in fourth quarter, the 70,585 fans packed into Kinnick Stadium could see the end result. Everyone did, except those in the visitors' locker room.
In what will be the lasting memory between these two schools for the foreseeable future, No.10 Wisconsin, sitting on its own 20-yard line, chalked up their grittiest effort of the season, registering a phenomenal game-winning drive that ended with Montee Ball reaching the ball across the goal line with 66 seconds left to give the Badgers a 31-30 victory over No.13 Iowa Saturday night.
In a game featuring two opponents with similar tendencies, Wisconsin (7-1, 3-1 Big Ten) needed something special to happen after the Badgers were 80 yards from their goal line with 8 minutes, 35 seconds remaining and down to their reserves.
With Nick Toon (quad) unable to play, the Badgers seemingly lost tight end Lance Kendricks (ankle) in the first quarter, running back James White (knee) second quarter and center Peter Konz (ankle) at halftime.
"NCAA rules says we can only bring 70 people (to a road game)," UW Coach Bret Bielema said. "I said we're going to need every one of them to win this game today. Unfortunately, that's basically true. (Those are) guys that care about Wisconsin."
So with the Badgers wanting to deliver Wisconsin football, the visitors didn't the unexpected, dialing up a fake punt on fourth-and-four. The result was junior Brad Nortman scampering 17 yards, giving UW new life at its own 43.
"The coaches drew it up and I just went out there and executed it," Nortman said. "I think the coaches saw it during the week, we put it in, ran it a couple times but I never thought we were going to run it … I just got the first down. Our offense went in there and kept driving the ball."
From that point on, it was Tolzien's drive of redemption. The senior quarterback his Jacob Pedersen for 12 yards on third-and-five to move the ball in Iowa territory and hit Ball for seven yards on fourth-and-four to keep the drive moving.
"That's why you have all those reps in practice and watch film in the off season," Tolzien said. "You learn from those bad situations when you don't response really well."
Ball, who was relegated to third-string status with the emergence of White, admitted to losing confidence as his carries diminished. After not playing last week against the Buckeyes, Ball was fresh and with a chip on his shoulder, which could be seen on the final two carries of the drive.
After rushing for eight yards to get the Badgers down to the 8, the sophomore kept his legs churning and as his body neared the turf, reached the nose of the pigskin over the goal line for his first touchdown since Week 4.
"I told Coach B that wherever you put me, I plan on producing," Ball said. "I asked him a week ago if I can contribute on special teams. I just want to be on the field."
The mission was far from over for the Badgers, seeing as Iowa (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) and senior quarterback Ricky Stanzi, the conference's reigning offensive player of the week, had 66 seconds left on the clock. Driving to its own 49, the Hawkeyes finally met resistance, as junior defensive end J.J. Watt registered the team's only sack, an 11-yard loss that forced Iowa to burn a timeout with 26 seconds left.
"Our defensive line persevered," Watt said. "We didn't play great at all times, but we played good enough to win, and that's all that matters."
The Hawkeyes burned their final timeout with 12 seconds left after Stanzi did a quarterback keeper on fourth-and-1. That proved costly when running back Adam Robinson was tackled in bounds on the next play, allowing the Badgers to celebrate for a few seconds before sprinting over to the Iowa sidelines to reclaim possession of the Heartland Trophy.
"This is another good building block, another good win," senior John Moffitt said. "Last week validated last week and this week is another great win, and something we can learn from."
Tolzien finished 10 of 26 for 205 yards and a touchdown while Clay, who was missed part of last year's game with an ankle injury, earned some sweet justice, finishing with a gritty 91 yards and two second-half touchdowns that helped the Badgers erase a 13-10 halftime deficit.
"It's a great feeling being able to step up," Clay said. "I wasn't able to last year and to have another chance to do it on a big stage, it boosts us as a team."
The Badgers continued to have success with their opening drives, going 70 yards in 15 plays and chewing up 8 minutes, 9 seconds. The Badgers did see their streak of 23 straight touchdowns inside the 20-yard line snapped when James White was tackled for a loss of eight on third-and-one, resulting in a 33-yard field goal by Philip Welch.
Coming into the game, the Badgers had scored the first time they touched the ball in five of their first seven games. That included a game-opening kickoff return for a touchdown against Ohio State and four game-opening touchdown drives of 80, 77, 69 and 68 yards.
The momentum the Badgers were hoping to establish by taking the ball first was quickly erased by Iowa's nine-play, 78-yard scoring march that picked apart Wisconsin's front four.
With starting defensive tackle Jordan Kohout (ankle) out, Iowa took advantage of the inexperience. Robinson and company ran seven times for 48 yards and took a 6-3 lead when Robinson barreled in from one yard and Watt blocked the extra-point attempt.
"If you really want to look at the game, special teams hurt us today," Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That's not a good thing."
Even with the injuries giving the Badgers' offense a revolving door of sorts, Tolzien kept the offense cohesive, and did so by utilizing the replacements. Following the Iowa touchdown, Tolzien floated a pass over three defenders to a wide-open Jacob Pedersen for 18 yards down to the Iowa 30, executed a shovel pass on third-and-12 that Ball took for 14 yards down inside the seven and dialed up a play-action fake to hit a wide-open Bradie Ewing for the seven-yard touchdown and a 10-6 lead.
Iowa had a chance to retake the lead after driving to the UW 10, but made consecutive five-yard infractions to force a field goal attempt. The series became even more magnified when punter Ryan Donahue bobbled a perfect snap that prevented the Hawkeyes from attempted a 31-yard field goal.
Iowa ended the half with a 3-yard touchdown pass to tight end Allen Reisner to give Iowa a 13-10 lead, but the mistakes kept the Badgers within an arm's length.
"They played hard the entire game (and) took advantage of what we gave them," Iowa running back Adam Robinson, who became only the third running back in three years to rush for over 100 yards (114) against Wisconsin. "We made too many mistakes to be successful at the end of the game."
Four of Wisconsin's five scoring drives were at least 10 plays and next to the final drive, none was more important than the Badgers' first drive of the second half. Marching 80 yards in 12 plays, Bielema elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Iowa 2-yard line and Clay barreled into the end zone to give UW a 17-13 lead.
"We all wanted it on fourth-and-one," Moffitt said. "In that kind of game and Stanzi playing lights out, you only get so many possessions."
The Hawkeyes outscored Wisconsin 17-7 over the next 12:25, as Stanzi's two touchdown passes put Iowa up 27-24 and kicker Mike Meyer's 40-yard field goal added to the lead with 8:35 to go, but the inability to connect on the early field goal attempt and turn Tolzien's interception into seven points gave Wisconsin the opening it needed.
"They've got a very veteran group up there," Ferentz said of Wisconsin. "That's a fifth-year senior (QB), excellent offensive line, good backs. They're going to move the football on everybody."
As it turns out, that veteran group seemed to want it more, too.
"Last week, everybody is behind you, the mojo, we rode that thing," Bielema said. "All week, we just kept talking about embracing the challenge this week, embracing the crowd, embracing the pink locker room, embracing the atmosphere. You're going to be in it, don't try to fight it.
"It's important to win big games on the road if you want to be something in this conference, and the kids went out and did it today."