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Iowa vs. Wisconsin: Badgers brace for Big Ten opener vs. Hawkeyes

As conference openers go, Iowa vs. Wisconsin has the makings of a fascinating early-October contest.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

Amazingly and sadly, the last time Iowa visited Camp Randall Stadium was 2009. Wisconsin took a 10-3 lead into halftime, but Scott Tolzien's three second-half interceptions and an awakened Iowa offense under Ricky Stanzi carried the Hawkeyes to a 20-10 victory. UW would lose two more games that season, which could be considered to be the beginning of the offensive renaissance under the coordinator at the time, Paul Chryst.

Following a win over No. 15 Miami in the 2009 Champs Sports Bowl, Wisconsin ended its next three seasons in Pasadena at the Rose Bowl. After the second of those, Chryst left for his first head coaching job, only to return this season as the Badgers' head coach.

For Iowa, 2009 was the high point of what many have called [Kirk] Ferentz 2.0. Its win over Wisconsin took Iowa to 5-0; the team went on to 9-0 before losing to Northwestern and an old-system, quasi-championship game to Ohio State in overtime, both without an injured Stanzi. With Stanzi back for the postseason, the Hawkeyes closed the season with a decisive Orange Bowl victory over Georgia Tech, the last BCS/New Year's Six appearance for the program.

Iowa fans expected Ferentz 3.0 to be underway after the 2013 season, in which the team went 8-4 and again appeared on New Year's Day in that season's Outback Bowl. The loss in that game to LSU may have confirmed what might have been fool's gold in 2013: Iowa beat all the teams it was supposed to beat, but lost to (a very good) Northern Illinois, Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. Comparisons were made to Iowa's 9-4 2008 season, the springboard for 2009's high-water mark.

Last season did not live up to those expectations. Iowa came out flat against FCS Northern Iowa, needed two touchdowns in the last two minutes to get past Ball State, and lost at home to eventual 2-10 Iowa State. Wins started to come until a 51-14 shelling by Minnesota. After a win over mediocre Illinois, Iowa dropped its last three games starting with the Badgers and each uglier than the last. Malaise came over the program and its fans, season-ticket sales for 2015 dwindled and many lamented or bemoaned Ferentz's still-enormous buyout.

So what changed since January to bring Iowa into Madison this weekend after an undefeated non-conference run? It's not the coaching staff; they're basically the same guys. It can't be an offensive line that lost two players to the NFL, including last year's Outland Trophy winner, Brandon Scherff. It can't be a defense that returned seven starters and also lost two tackles to the NFL.

Nope, it has to be the quarterback, C.J. Beathard, who was unconventionally named the starter over incumbent fifth-year senior Jake Rudock very shortly after the bowl loss.

Beathard's not a Heisman candidate, but he is dynamic. He's completing passes at 68.2-percent clip and getting a healthy 8.7 yards per attempt (25th in FBS). He has six touchdowns to one interception, with a long of 81 yards. Then there's his ability to make and extend plays with his feet, which has gotten him three rushing touchdowns. In short, Iowa now has a quarterback that can win it games.

Combine Iowa's offensive transition from boring to "fun" with a salty defense that, like Wisconsin's, ranks in the top 20 or better in several categories and gives up just 17.8 points per game (to Wisconsin's 9.5), and you have a team entering conference play with a swagger not seen since, well, the last time the Hawkeyes were here.

The Badgers, for their part, enter conference play nearly fully recovered from the opening loss against Alabama, which looks almost more curious in retrospect considering Wisconsin did not have either Michael Caputo or Tanner McEvoy on defense, and had a limited Corey Clement for just half the game. Clement, the "nearly" alluded to above, hasn't played since Alabama, and now isn't likely to due to a finally-diagnosed sports hernia.

In the wake of Clement's injury, Wisconsin's traditionally strong running game appears to have found its legs just in time for conference play. Against Hawaii, Taiwan Deal registered a breakout 147-yard, two-touchdown performance that earned him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors, while Dare Ogunbowale ran for 85 yards on 15 carries with one touchdown; both averaged 5.7 yards per carry. What's more, the 169 gained on 29 carries out of the two-fullback, inverted wishbone formation, unintended as it may have been prior to the game, has to have fans' interest piqued.

A passing game that appeared to have been making strides in the Badgers' first three games took a bit of step back against Hawaii. Stave often looked circa 2013, with annoying inaccuracy and continual locking onto Alex Erickson, but he also wasn't helped by multiple dropped passes. If this part of the offense can regain some of its early-season form, the Badgers may find that elusive balance sought by Chryst and which has been missing since Russell Wilson left for NFL greatness.

Wisconsin's defense enters conference play having given up three points in its last three games, something everyone now knows UW hasn't done since 1937. Against the run, that the Badgers have put Alabama and Derrick Henry behind them is evidenced by the total 111 yards they've yielded on the ground since then. We'll see how they hold up against Iowa, who's rolled up almost 200 yards per game so far.

Fans will also recall the second half of last year's game in Iowa City, when UW's secondary was exposed for three touchdowns and an eventual 311 yards passing by the otherwise listless and clinical Rudock. You can bet Darius Hillary and Sojourn Shelton will be tested again this way on Saturday by Beathard and receivers Tevaun Smith and Big Ten receptions leader Matt Vandeberg.

This should be a de facto Big Ten West title game.

This should be a de facto Big Ten West title game. Ostensible contenders Nebraska and Minnesota haven't looked sharp in large parts of games and, with Northwestern, do not have the weak East crossover games like Wisconsin and Iowa do. Iowa has looked like the West's most sound team and Wisconsin has solidified nearly all phases and aspects since losing to Alabama.

Both teams have shown flashes of what has made them good in their recent, and often closely similar, histories. No matter who has the ball, the line of scrimmage will be ground zero, but if that's a stalemate, and it may well be, each offense will have to break through on the perimeter or down the field. Both have done that at times this season so far, but neither on a consistent basis.

In the best recent installment of this series, in 2010 in Iowa City, Brad Nortman's fake punt from Wisconsin's 26-yard line stood out as a decisive play. This season has already seen not one, but two fake field goals called by the erstwhile, ultraconservative Ferentz. If all else winds up being equal on Saturday, maybe it's some sort of special teams trickery that carries the day.

The Badgers have won the last three against Iowa, all at Iowa, going back to that 2010 epic. The series is now at 44-42-2 in favor of Wisconsin. Even though many see the Big Ten West as one of the weaker divisions in major college football, between these two natural rivals from the "classical" Big Ten, so close in history and makeup and looking so evenly matched right now, there really couldn't be a much better way for each to begin their conference seasons.