MADISON – They sit there as plain day as soon as the doors are opened to Wisconsin’s recently renovated home locker room, three trophy cases holding the rewards for the Badgers defeating three of their toughest rivals.
The first case holds Paul Bunyan’s Axe, hardware that Wisconsin has held for 12 years from its annual conquest over Minnesota. The next case holds the Freedom Trophy – the newest of the three that the Badgers have possessed since introduced in 2014 with their two triumphs over Nebraska.
The last case usually holds the Heartland Trophy, a case that had been occupied since 2010 thanks to three straight road wins at Iowa. Over the last 11 months, however, UW players entering the locker room have only seen a case collecting dust.
“You walk past it and there’s just that gap,” inside linebacker Jack Cichy said. “You’re reminded of that. The score is up there. You’re always reminded. That has created a fire from the first time we saw an empty trophy case. It’s just been boiling. It’s been brewing for a good 11 months. It’s going to be good to unleash it.”
No.10 Wisconsin’s opportunity for redemption comes this weekend in Iowa City when they take on Iowa (5-2, 3-1 Big Ten) at 11 a.m. in Kinnick Stadium.
It’s uncommon territory for Wisconsin (4-2, 1-2) to go into a trophy game without the trophy, let alone have someone march across the field and take one.
The Badgers have won 11 of their last 12 trophy games dating back to the 2010 season. The lone loss during that stretch was the 10-6 home setback to Iowa last season, a loss that played a part in the Badgers not playing for a Big Ten title.
Nobody on UW’s current roster had lost a trophy game until that bitter pill.
“Losing one last year and having to work all season, all winter, all summer and then all fall camp and every time I walk past that trophy case, it’s not there,” cornerback Sojourn Shelton said. “It was kind of a weird feeling, but coming up on Saturday, we get a chance to get that back. It’s going to be a fun and intense rivalry game, and I can’t wait."
Wisconsin and Iowa has been one of the conference’s most competitive rivalries. Not only does Wisconsin lead the all-time series 44-43-2, the road team has won the last five games of the series. It is part of the reason why the Badgers haven’t put much stock into Iowa’s early season struggles.
After a 2-0 start, Iowa lost home games to North Dakota State and Northwestern, beat up a pair of conference doormats in Purdue and Rutgers and slogged through a trophy game win at Minnesota.
“They’re very talented, well coached, it’s a good football team,” head coach Paul Chryst said of Iowa, which has won its last six trophy games. “You see that on tape.”
What Chryst likely sees on tape are a lot of the same players who led Iowa to an undefeated regular season and a berth in the Rose Bowl.
Senior quarterback C.J. Beathard improved his record as a starter to 18-4 last season, the second-best among Hawkeyes starting quarterbacks since 1954. And while the Hawkeyes have dealt with injuries at the receiver position, Iowa’s tandem of tailbacks are as good as anybody.
Akrum Wadley has 592 rushing yards (84.6 ypg) and LeShun Daniels has 589 rushing yards (84.1 ypg), ranking them third and fifth in the conference, respectively. No other school has two players in the top 10.
They’ve combined for 14 touchdowns, 10 coming in the red zone. It’s a big reason why the Hawkeyes have scored points on 23 of 24 trips to the red zone, a .958 percentage that ranks them first in the Big Ten and fifth nationally.
“They hit the holes hard,” Cichy said of the tailbacks. “They have pretty good vision. What we have to get back to as a defense is winning first down and controlling the line of scrimmage. If we can control that line of scrimmage, we can really dictate the terms of the game … It’s going to be interesting to see how we match up against them. You can’t game plan against them the same way.”
Although the Hawkeyes’ defense average in the middle of conference (high as fifth with scoring defense – 19.1 points per game; low as 11th with pass defense – 219.0), Iowa has generated 11 takeaways - five interceptions, six fumble recoveries - and has turned seven of them into touchdowns.
While teams have naturally avoided cornerback, and reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner, Desmond King (one interception), free safety Brandon Snyder has picked up the slack. In the last five weeks, the sophomore has two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
“Defensively they are playing well,” Chryst said. “It’s a really good team. I’ve always had a ton of respect for how they are coached.”
For the first time in a month, Wisconsin enters the game as a betting favorite (-3). They could care less. The only thing Wisconsin players want is to refill their trophy case.
“It feels like someone is taking something from you,” receiver Jazz Peavy said. “You come into the locker room, we have the trophy cases and see the trophies in there. To not see one in there, someone took that from us. We definitely want that back.”