IOWA CITY, Iowa — After taking down top-ranked Ohio State a week ago, the University of Wisconsin football players wondered if they could top that moment.
Seven days later, they did.
The shorthanded Badgers, ranked No. 10, limped into Kinnick Stadium on Saturday with as many as seven starters questionable to play. They exited with a dramatic 31-30 victory over No. 13 Iowa, securing the first road win over a ranked Big Ten Conference opponent for UW coach Bret Bielema.
The Badgers’ third straight win improved their record to 7-1 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten Conference, stamping them as legitimate title contenders heading into next week’s bye. The Hawkeyes fell to 5-2 and 2-1.
“I think it tops last week,” said junior defensive end J.J. Watt, whose blocked extra point after Iowa’s first touchdown proved to be the difference. “We had so many guys banged up, we were here in a tough environment, against a tough football team, after being at such an emotional high last week.
“To come in here and do what we did is unbelievable. I can’t say enough about our team.”
The Badgers played the game without top receiver Nick Toon (thigh contusion), then lost tight end Lance Kendricks (ankle) and backup tailback James White (sprained knee) in the first half. Starting center Peter Konz played the first half with an ankle injury and then gave way to Bill Nagy, a reserve guard who is also used as an extra tight end.
“Billy Nagy pops in, takes off the tight end jersey number and steps in there, unbelievable selfless act to give us that win,” Bielema gushed afterward.
It was a day when several backups were thrust into unexpected roles, none bigger than third tailback Montee Ball, who didn’t even play against the Buckeyes. Ball led the offense with five receptions for 41 yards.
That was an example of the way offensive coordinator Paul Chryst cobbled together an offense. Most of the burden fell to fifth-year senior quarterback Scott Tolzien, who was magnificent, holding things together.
“You try not to make a big deal out of it,” Tolzien said of the injuries. “You just plain and simple move forward. I feel like I can rattle off five different guys that stepped into bigger roles (Saturday). That’s not an easy thing to do in a place like Kinnick.”
It took, as Bielema noted, “a tremendous amount of faith.”
It started in an emotional team huddle during pregame warmups, when left guard John Moffitt stepped out of character and had a few spirited words for his teammates inside the circle.
“Usually I don’t like to say things to the whole team. I like to keep that to the O line,” Moffitt said. “But sometimes I feel guys need to hear things from an older guy. I wanted everybody to hear how we needed to approach this game, especially being a road game.
“I just said it’s a road game and in so many words, it’s going to be tough, but we’re going to play our game and that’s how we’re going to win.”
The Badgers never lost faith, answering everything the Hawkeyes did.
“It all starts with a belief,” Tolzien said. “If you don’t have that belief and confidence, then you’re short-changing yourself.”
Bielema did his part with two gutsy calls. He eschewed a tying field goal on fourth-and-1 from the Iowa 2-yard line in the third quarter. Tailback John Clay followed left tackle Gabe Carimi and Moffitt, who opened a huge hole, giving the Badgers a 17-13 lead.
Carimi, who was lined up against standout defensive end Adrian Clayborn, made impassioned pleas to Bielema during the week and the day of the game.
“He made a pretty strong statement to me,” Bielema said. “He was very confident he was going to play well. He basically was telling me to come to the left side whenever I felt it (was) needed.”
And trailing 30-24, Bielema also called a fake punt on fourth-and-4 from his own 26. When Iowa rushed two on the edge and the rest bailed out, punter Brad Nortman easily ran for 17 yards up the middle with a little more than 6 minutes left.
Tolzien converted another fourth-and-4 from the Iowa 33 with a 7-yard completion to Ball.
“As that drive progressed, I knew we were going to be able to score,” Bielema said. “We scored a little too quick.”
Ball got credit for an 8-yard touchdown run. He was initially ruled down at the 1 but it was overturned by replay, giving the Badgers the lead.
The defense had trouble getting off the field — Iowa converted 11 of 16 third downs — but made two critical stops. Tolzien’s only mistake was a late throw that was intercepted by safety Brett Greenwood at the UW 26-yard line in the fourth quarter.
“We knew as soon as Scotty threw that pick, we were going to pick him back up,” Watt said. “We knew if we didn’t stop them there, we weren’t going to win the football game.”
The defense held, forcing Iowa to settle for a 40-yard field goal, then took the field with 1:01 left to protect the one-point lead.
The final in a long string of heroes on the day was fitting: Gimpy linebacker Mike Taylor — who suffered a major knee injury in the game against the Hawkeyes a year ago — tackled running back Adam Robinson in bounds after a 4-yard completion to the UW 35, and the clock ran out.
“Mike Taylor, who’s playing on half a leg, a kid that got hurt last week, didn’t really practice at all this week,” Bielema said. “Just a tremendous effort by him.”