With most experts picking Ohio State and Iowa as Wisconsin's two biggest challengers for the Big Ten Conference title, the team's back-to-back showdowns against the pair in October appeared to be a crucial stretch for the Badgers' championship hopes.
The team passed that test with flying colors.
Though Wisconsin fell to unlikely Big Ten-leader Michigan State in its Big Ten opener, the tenth-ranked Badgers outmuscled the then-No.1 Buckeyes in front of a primetime audience a week ago and outlasted the No. 13 Hawkeyes in a tough road test Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
Wisconsin and Ohio State, both 3-1, sit a game back of the unbeaten Spartans (4-0) in the Big Ten standings.
As a reward, the Badgers receive their first bye of the season next week before heading into to West Lafayette, Ind., to take on Purdue Nov. 6.
"These guys have earned a bye week," Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema said. "They're going to have a head coach that's very rewarding. They'll get a lot of time off to themselves to get themselves healed for us to move into the month of November and get ready for the next four opponents.
"Really proud of my players and coaches."
With the victory over Iowa, the Badgers defeated ranked teams in consecutive weeks for the first time since October 2004, when they beat No. 18 Ohio State and No. 5 Purdue.
"This is a huge win, and I think it's maybe even bigger to win the second big game in a row," Wisconsin senior offensive tackle Gabe Carimi said.
Badgers junior defensive end J.J. Watt was impressed with his team's ability to remain level-headed following last week's shocker at Camp Randall Stadium.
"Ohio State was No. 1, but we came here after a real tough week," Watt said. "We had such an emotional high last week, and to come in here and prepare like we did and to get this win over an extremely tough football team in an extremely tough environment was huge for our team and says a lot about our character."
Every Point Counts
Bielema knows the parts of a football game that help define a defense.
"I've always told my defense that to me, the truest test of what a defense is all about is how they play PAT because anytime you're on the field and it's a PAT situation, it means that you were just scored upon and how are you going to react," Bielema said.
"The reaction was unbelievable and ends up being the difference in the game."
When Watt blocked Iowa kicker Mike Meyer's point after try following Iowa's first touchdown in the opening quarter, he gave Wisconsin the boost it needed to eek out a 31-30 victory over Iowa Saturday, marking the second time this season the Badgers have batted down a PAT in a 1-point victory.
"In the first quarter, you don't really see that as a huge play in the game," Watt said of block. "But obviously as the game unfolds and right at the end, you realize that the extra effort on that play was absolutely huge."
Put the Heartland on Hold
When the Big Ten announced its two-division alignment for the new 12-team conference next season in September, Wisconsin and Iowa were placed into separate divisions.
And since the Badgers must face the other five teams in their division each year and are allowed to keep only one annual cross-divisional foe (Minnesota), they and the Hawkeyes will no longer face each other every season.
Since the pair also fights each year for the coveted Heartland Trophy, which was introduced in 2004, the realignment left many disappointed.
Wisconsin won't meet Iowa in 2011 and 2012, and next year will be the first time the teams haven't met since 1994. So Badgers junior running back John Clay was thrilled Wisconsin pulled off a victory.
"This gives us a chance to come out with a win and the trophy," Clay said. "We're going to have it for the next couple of years, so we wanted to finish (Iowa) out with a bang."
The Badgers earned their third win – first since 2007 – in seven meetings Saturday since the trophy's debut.
Getting Everyone Involved
Saturday's victory at Kinnick Stadium was truly a team effort. That statement is reflected in the team's receiving statistics.
Ten different Wisconsin players caught a pass from quarterback Scott Tolzien Saturday. Junior tight end Jake Byrne registered a 9-yard reception in the second quarter that marked his first career grab, while Clay had a 9-yard catch-and-run in the third quarter for his first of the season.
"It's neat because then you get everyone in the flow of the game," Tolzien said. "Then, all of the sudden, everyone's playing with confidence. They've all made plays, and it's powerful stuff."
Ball hauled in a team-high five catches, while senior Isaac Anderson racked up a team-high 42 receiving yards on three grabs. Freshman Jacob Pedersen, senior Lance Kendricks, senior David Gilreath and Byrne registered two catches apiece. Freshman Jared Abbrederis, Clay, junior Bradie Ewing and freshman James White had one apiece.
Extra points: Wisconsin and Iowa are now tied 42-42-2 in the all-time series…senior cornerback Niles Brinkley recorded a career-high eight tackles…junior kicker Philip Welch racked up seven points (four extra points, one field goal) to pass Anthony Davis for sixth on the school's career scoring list (259 points)… Ewing's touchdown in the second quarter marked his fourth career score, despite the fact he has only 10 touches in his three years.