Tom Dienhart, Senior Writer, November 21, 2014

Back in August, I picked Iowa to win the Big Ten West. Many doubted my pick – that's what makes predictions fun. And look, it was understandable as Wisconsin was the strong choice of many to win the division. Now, the Badgers and Hawkeyes face off in huge divisional game this Saturday in Iowa City.

There were several things I liked about the 2014 Hawkeyes back in the dog days of August as our BTN crew traveled to each of the football camps. I thought the line play on both sides of the ball could be among the best in the Big Ten. As any coach will tell you time and time again, football is won at the line of scrimmage.


Iowa's offensive line had three starters back led by perhaps the best blocker in America in left tackle Brandon Scherff. The defensive line also had three starters returning with massive tackle Carl Davis leading the way.

I also liked the Iowa schedule, which along with Wisconsin?s slate was among the most favorable in the Big Ten. The Hawkeyes didn?t have to play East Division heavies Michigan State or Ohio State-or even Michigan and Penn State, for that matter. The cross-division foes were Indiana and Maryland. Oh, and West foes Wisconsin and Nebraska had to come to Iowa City. This was a beautiful set up, right?

It all looked so perfect for a team with 12 starters back (six on offense; five on defense; one specialist).

And, sure, enough, Iowa (7-3 overall and 4-2 Big Ten) sits on the precipice of winning the West with two games left. But, it won?t be easy to finish the deal, beginning with the aforementioned visit from Wisconsin this Saturday.

"You have to love it," said Iowa senior linebacker Quinton Alston. "ABC game… 2:30 p.m…. a great team coming to Iowa City; you have to love these opportunities and make the most of it. I can't wait for it.

"Weeks like this when all the hype is around here, you hear outside voices. We need to stay humble-minded and hungry and make sure nobody is going out there trying to be Superman on any given play.?

For a while, it didn?t look like the Hawkeyes would even get the opportunity to win the division. The offense has been inconsistent, ranking seventh in the Big Ten in scoring (28.1 ppg). The rushing attack has been the most vexing, ranking seventh (163.3 ypg) despite the Hawkeyes having a raft of good backs (Mark Weisman, Jordan Canzeri, Damon Bullock) working behind a line that lacked depth but had good starters.

Quarterback Jakes Rudock also came under some fire. Could he pass well enough down field to open room for the rushing game? And were there enough receivers to make defenses respect the Iowa passing game?

The season began with unsteady home wins vs. FCS Northern Iowa and Ball State, a game in which Iowa had to rally furiously to win. (The Cardinals are 3-7). Then came a loss at home to a bad Iowa State team that is 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the Big 12.

This certainly didn?t look like a championship-caliber team. The Hawkeyes won three in a row after the Iowa State fiasco but didn?t really impress in victories over Pitt, Purdue and Indiana-all of which also have losing records like Ball State and ISU.

In fact, Iowa hasn?t beaten a FBS team with a winning record this season. Add it all up, and the six FBS foes that Iowa has beaten this year are a combined 21-39 (.350 winning percentage).

The losses also have been brutal. In addition to falling at home to Iowa State, the Hawkeyes saw a 14-0 lead at Maryland melt into a 38-21 loss. And concerns about the defense loomed after a 51-14 drubbing at Minnesota in which the Gophers ran for 291 yards and Iowa?s attack generated a paltry 205 yards.

If Iowa is going to close the deal on the West title, it will need to beat a white-hot Wisconsin team that has won five in a row and is 8-2 overall (5-1 Big Ten).

"We have to make sure we know and execute our assignment and know what we're supposed to do on every given play. If we do that, we'll be fine," said Alston.

The Badgers are coming off one of the most impressive Big Ten wins of 2014, a 59-24 thumping vs. Nebraska that saw Wisconsin running back Melvin Gordon run for a FBS single-game record 408 yards. No doubt, Iowa is the underdog-even though it will be playing in Kinnick Stadium.

"We play better as the underdog," said Iowa safety John Lowdermilk. "I don't know if it's a certain mindset, but I like going into this game as the underdog with a chip on your shoulder and playing like you have something to prove."

Hawkeye wideout Kevonte Martin-Manley concurs.

"(Being an underdog) is the type of program we are," said Martin-Manley. "We're built on being underdogs in recruiting. We're confident in the talent we have, and we know how hard we play. We feel good about our chances."

After Wisconsin comes a Black Friday visit from Nebraska, which is 8-2 overall just like Wisconsin. Win both of those games and combine it with one Minnesota loss down the stretch, and the Hawkeyes will go to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.

"We worked all year to have meaningful games in November, and this is a huge game," said Lowdermilk. "It's a big challenge for us, but if we prepare and practice well, we'll be successful on the field this weekend."


About Tom Dienhart senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, read all of his work at, and subscribe to his posts via RSS. Also, send questions to his weekly mailbag using the form below and read all of his previous answers in his reader mailbag section.

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