IOWA CITY, Iowa – Wisconsin’s defense didn’t need to talk about being gritty in the week leading up to its third conference road trip in four game, not when preparing for blue-collared, power-I offense that resembles looking into a discolored mirror.
But a friendly reminder never hurt anybody, especially after the emotional roller coaster of last week’s result.
“It’s part of who we are as a defense,” outside linebacker T.J. Wattsaid, referring to grit. “We knew it was going to be more of a dog fight this week, more a battle in the trenches without motions and different things. We just try to be gritty, man.”
No arguing that No.10 Wisconsin lived up to its reputation, as the tenacious DNA helped an injury-plagued defense keep Iowa out of the end zone to claw out a 17-9 victory in front of 70,585 at Kinnick Stadium.
Helping the road team win its sixth straight in the series, Wisconsin (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) has become used to winning in Iowa City – its four game road winning streak is the longest since 1907 to 1928 – and are accustomed to doing it without a full healthy complement of players.
In 2010, Wisconsin either held out or lost four offensive starters during the game (Lance Kendricks, Peter Konz, Nick Toon and James White), not to mention linebacker Mike Taylor playing with a banged-up leg and linebacker Chris Borland already out for the season with a dislocated shoulder.
In 2013, Wisconsin’s defensive line rallied around Tyler Dippel’s absence due to a family issue, Borland unable to play because of a hamstring injury and receiver Jared Abbrederis, Dallas Lewallen and Brian Wozniak all leaving the game.
This followed a similar script. Starting nose tackle Olive Sagapolu didn’t make the trip, senior receiver Rob Wheelwright didn’t practice during the week and hardly played, linebacker Jack Cichy tried to play with a left shoulder injury and cornerback Derrick Tindal left with a right leg injury in the second half.
Wisconsin rolled with the punches by bringing in Ryan Connelly midway through the fourth quarter at inside linebacker after moving cornerback Sojourn Shelton to nickel to accommodate redshirt freshman Titus Booker and junior Lubern Figaro working on the islands. The result was Iowa passing for 153 yards.
“That’s just the mentality that we have,” Shelton said. “Each guy in each position of this defense knows that anything can happen, so we all try to be prepare for any situation or scenario we face in a game. Our room today was a perfect, a key guy (Tindal) going down and people having to step up.”
A week after the Buckeyes racked up 411 total yards and 30 points through four quarters and an overtime, Wisconsin limited Iowa to 236 yards. A week after rushing for 365 yards, Iowa (5-3, 3-2) could only scratch out 83 yards, the ninth time in the last 14 games a team failed to break the century mark rushing.
“We have confidence no matter who is in the game,” Watt said. “We’re not missing a beat.”
Iowa only ran 26 of its 60 plays in Wisconsin territory, went only 2 of 13 against UW’s defense and failed to break the goal line on three trips to the red zone. Even when the end result was all but determined, Wisconsin didn’t crack.
Advancing to the Wisconsin 7 in the final minute, trailing 17-6, the Hawkeyes missed on three straight pass attempts, settled for a field goal and kicked the ensuing onside attempt out of bounds.
“Guys did step up and made plays,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “They were tested and stay resilient through that … The defense gave us a chance to win this one, and they closed it out.”
The defense did need some help and received it from tailback Corey Clement. Although he gaffed in the first half by fumbling as he started to reach the ball over the goal line, and had to adapt to UW rotating in eight different offensive linemen in four combinations, Clement ran for 134 yards on a career-high 35 carries, none bigger than his 1-yard carry to give UW a 14-6 lead in the third quarter.
He also had a 34-yard run in the fourth quarter after breaking a tackle for loss on third-and-short, forcing Iowa to spend its three timeouts.
“I almost felt too down about (the fumble) but then I talked to the coaches and still had another half to go,” Clement said. “Fumbles happen, and I just have to be a veteran, keep my head up, keep fighting with the seniors and coming out here with a purpose – we had to get what was ours back. Running across that sideline was an awesome feeling.”
It’s also a little bit scary, considering the members of this defense believe they haven’t come close to scratching their potential yet.
“We truly can get a lot better. There are some things that we all know we can improve on. Don’t get me wrong, as an overall defense we’re playing some really good football. The overall mentality of what we want to be and the goals for our self, we know we can improve.”