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On3 highlights Wisconsin trip as Iowa Hawkeyes’ most important 2023 Big Ten game

The battle for the Heartland Trophy is always tense. It always means a little bit more than some of the other dates on the Iowa Hawkeyes‘ schedule just in terms of bragging rights.

The history and pageantry surrounding the rivalry date is why the game wound up as one of Iowa’s three protected opponents in the new-look Big Ten schedule beginning in 2024.

In the here and now, it just might be the most important game of the entire 2023 season for the Hawkeyes. On3’s Jesse Simonton says so anyways.

In his breakdown of the most important 2023 Big Ten games for every team, Iowa’s Oct. 14 trip to Wisconsin was Simonton’s pick for the black and gold’s most important Big Ten game. As a matter of fact, he chose it as Wisconsin’s most important Big Ten game, too.

The Hawkeyes and the Badgers are the two frontrunners to win the Big Ten West in the final season of divisions, and this fall might be Kirk Ferentz’s best — and final chance to win another conference championship.

But to do so would likely require winning in Madison first — something Iowa hasn’t done since 2015. The Hawkeyes beat the Badgers 24-10 last season and have won the Heartland Trophy two of the last three years. – Simonton, On3.

Just as Simonton points out, Iowa will have to conquer a foe that it’s had a tough time vanquishing in Madison of late. Iowa has lost each of its past three at Wisconsin, including a 27-7 loss most recently in 2021.

Under Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have a 4-6 record at Wisconsin. Three of the six losses were one-score setbacks. The Hawkeyes’ best stretch of success in Madison under Ferentz came during the 2003 season through 2009 when Iowa won three of four at Wisconsin.

In perhaps the perfect microcosm of its 2022 season, Iowa rode stellar defense and special teams to a 24-10 win over the Badgers last year. It truly was The Cooper DeJean Game.

One of the nation’s top defensive returners heading into 2023, DeJean’s talent and athleticism was on full display versus Wisconsin. He jumped a pass intended for Wisconsin’s Skyler Bell and returned it for a 32-yard pick-six. The Odebolt, Iowa, native also had a 41-yard punt return that set up another 1-yard scoring plunge from Hawkeyes quarterback Spencer Petras early in the fourth quarter.

At that point in the contest, DeJean had more total yards than Iowa had total offense. He didn’t finish far off either. DeJean finished with 114 total yards and Iowa had 146 yards of total offense. It was the fewest offensive yards per play in a win of 14-plus points since 2011.

Mix in a Deontae Craig blocked punt that set up Iowa’s first score from running back Kaleb Johnson on a 4-yard touchdown run and you had the full Hawkeye 2022 experience.

Here’s to hoping that Cade McNamara and Iowa deliver more offense than what we saw last November in Iowa City. But, really, anything that results in Iowa hoisting the Heartland Trophy again will be just fine.

Going into 2023, it does look and feel like Iowa and Wisconsin are the Big Ten West’s two best teams. There’s a lot of excitement surrounding first-year Wisconsin head coach Luke Fickell and how he and new offensive coordinator Phil Longo will create a different look with SMU transfer quarterback Tanner Mordecai.

Even if it takes more than one year for all of that to coalesce for the Badgers, Iowa’s trip to Wisconsin feels like one of the most important dates on the Hawkeyes’ schedule. It’s easy to pick this game out of the crowd for Iowa.

Win at Wisconsin and the Hawkeyes will have a great chance to represent the West in Indy.

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Story originally appeared on Hawkeyes Wire