MADISON - There's no skipping around the obvious for Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema. Saturday's game against undefeated and No.11 Iowa is a must win for Wisconsin if the Badgers plan on challenging for their first Big Ten conference title since 1999.
Having lost last weekend to Big Ten front runner Ohio State, a win would vault Wisconsin into a solid standing heading into its bye week.
"Where we are at because of our schedule, the way it has put us and because of what lays in front of us, this is a pivotal game," Bielema said Thursday. "If you just look at the Big Ten Conference, and I have been up front with our guys, Iowa sits at top of the conference with Ohio State and we've lost one. If you want to have any shot at things down the road, you've got to win to control our destiny."
This game also marks the annual battle for the Heartland Trophy, which was created in 2004 to commemorate the competitiveness of the rivalry. Losing 38-16 last season in Iowa, current members of the Badgers experienced the agony of having a team storm across their sideline to reclaim the prize, a fact that Bielema has reminded his players with words and notes on their lockers.
"We try to emphasize it this week more so than before, just because it's a trophy game and it's not in our possession," said Bielema, as UW is 2-3 in the trophy game. "One of the things we talked about with our players that ever since they've been here, the axe has always been here. They've never had to go over and get it. Last time was the first time any one of our players had someone run across the field and take something that was there's. I know our guys are focused on it."
The Badgers will head into their Homecoming Game healthy on defense, but needing to make some personnel changes on offense. Junior running back Zach Brown, who has been relegated primarily to the first series of the back and third-down situations, most likely not play on Saturday due to a concussion suffered against Ohio State.
"(Zach's) just not on point," Bielema said. "If he hasn't gotten any reps and we'll rely a majority on John Clay, Montee Ball and Erik Smith."
To this point, Bielema has chosen to start Brown instead of Clay for the simple reason that Clay has performed better in the past when coming off the bench. Clay's only start this season was a three fumble performance against Wofford, but the sophomore has responded with back-to-back 100-yard games against Michigan State and Minnesota and a gritty performance against Ohio State.
"Right now, I think John is going to be able to do it," Bielema said. "I think from my point of view as a head coach, I thought last Saturday, even though the numbers weren't there, the way he prepared and the way he handled the game, he played pretty well. Some of those yards he got were tough yards."
Wisconsin is also hoping to get a better performance from its offensive line after the group, who had given up an NCAA-leading two sacks through five games, was pressured severely by an Ohio State pass rush, leading to six sacks and plenty of pressure on junior quarterback Scott Tolzien.
"That's a group that plays with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder," Bielema said. "They practiced really good this week and I expect them to rebound. The good thing is that we're playing against a good defensive line, so it will be a nice gauge to find out where they are at."
Although Bill Nagy is still struggling in his recovery from an off-season Moped accident, the Badgers have been experimenting in order to build depth. Junior Jake Bscherer has been taking repetitions at both tackle positions, a position he is familiar with having played it up until this season. With Travis Frederick also healthy, the Badgers have upwards of four players that can build depth at the center and the guard position.
With freshman Ricky Wagner being the only backup at the tackle position, it was a necessity to move Bscherer back to create depth.
"I needed more depth at tackle, that's basically what it came down to," Bielema said. "He's been repping there the last two, three weeks."