When Iowa beat Ohio State last week, it meant two things for Wisconsin: One, the Badgers would be facing a team with legitimate upset potential this weekend, on a day where several playoff contenders faced season-defining tests. And two, they would get a crack at their first ranked opponent of 2017.
Wisconsin, now 10–0 after defeating the Hawkeyes, 38–14, has dealt with one criticism all year: its schedule. Going into Saturday, there were four undefeated Power Five teams in the College Football Playoff rankings. Georgia and Alabama were No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Miami came in at No. 7. And the Badgers were next, at No. 8, deemed the inferior team of the group—and worse than four one-loss teams. That was due to their division—the Big Ten West has been seen in recent years as the weaker half of the conference—and their schedule in general. But with Iowa’s win over Ohio State boosting its ranking to No. 20 coming into the game—along with September opponent Northwestern’s current No. 25 ranking—Wisconsin’s résumé has never looked better than it does right now.
By taking down Iowa, Wisconsin secured its spot in the Big Ten title game in Indianapolis on Dec. 2. After Ohio State’s win over Michigan State earlier Saturday, the Buckeyes look like the likely Big Ten East champion, barring losses to both Illinois and Michigan. A year ago, the conference’s championship game did not seem like a meeting of its two best teams; that won’t be the case in 2017. No matter that Wisconsin hasn’t played a string of top-15 opponents; should it win out over Michigan and Minnesota, it’ll have earned every bit of its spot in Indianapolis—as will Ohio State, which has already beaten its next closest challengers Penn State and Michigan State.
On Saturday, Wisconsin’s defense was the story. That’s hardly a rarity, but with the Badgers’ normally balanced and consistent offense gone turnover-prone early in the afternoon, the defense picked up the slack—and more. Wisconsin quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw interceptions on two of his first three drives, and Iowa went out to an early lead after the first, the first of two opportunistic pick-sixes for Hawkeyes corner Josh Jackson. It looked as if a sloppy evening might be in store—which was eventually the case, but not necessarily to the Badgers’ detriment. Iowa’s three turnovers included two key fumbles, one resulting in a scoop-and-score touchdown, as Wisconsin’s defense locked everything down late. On the day, Iowa registered just five first downs and went 0-for-13 on attempted third-down conversions, finishing the first half with just 10 yards of total offense and the entire day with only 66.
If there’s any criticism of Wisconsin’s play in recent weeks, it’s the team’s inability to start fast, in part due to occasional early turnovers. Against an up-and-coming Indiana team and a good Iowa one in the past two weeks, the Badgers let their opponents hang around early before picking up the scoring pace in the second half. That has worked out just fine so far, but as Ohio State now looms in Lucas Oil Stadium in three weeks, it’s something to keep an eye on. If Wisconsin’s defense keeps playing like it did against Iowa, though, the Badgers won’t have much to worry about.