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October 30, 2013

RBs have extra edge for Iowa

MADISON, Wis. - Simply saying that No. 24 Wisconsin's upcoming trip to Iowa City is important would be an understatement. The Badgers will play the Iowa Hawkeyes for the first time in over three years on Saturday, renewing a rivalry that's currently deadlocked at a 42-42-2 tie all-time.

Bragging rights and possession of a big brass bull are also on the line, as the Badgers will have the Heartland Trophy in tow on Saturday. It might not have as much history behind it as Paul Bunyan's Axe does, but the Badgers would likely cringe at the thought of returning to Madison without it this weekend.

But for running backs James White and Melvin Gordon, Saturday's game means just a little bit more- if that's even possible. It's a chance at redemption for White, who suffered a knee injury midway through Wisconsin's last game against Iowa. White rushed just six times for 10 net rushing yards against the Hawkeyes after picking up 436 yards and scoring nine touchdowns during his previous four games during his freshman season.

White's knee injury looked pretty severe at the time, but the now-senior running back said those physical games are ones he looks forward to as a running back.

"Last time I didn't get to finish the game," White said Tuesday after practice. "Iowa is a team that's very similar team to us. It was a physical kind of football game and that's what you want as a running back."

But while the normally understated White didn't invoke any fire and brimstone when asked to recall how he felt from the sidelines as the Badgers had to hold off a Hawkeye comeback, his partner in the backfield said White is going to be ready for one last game in Iowa City.

"He wants to get back at Iowa. He wants Iowa," Gordon said Monday. "James is really excited to play that game because he got hurt. He really didn't get to play as much as he wanted to, but we've seen the play on film. It looked pretty bad. If I know anything, James will be ready."

As for Gordon, Saturday's trip to Iowa City might invoke homecomings that could have been for the 6-foot-1 sophomore. Gordon originally committed to Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes early on during his senior year of high school, but eventually decided to flip to the Badgers a few months later.

But Gordon's change of heart wasn't as simple as hitting send. Gordon said he originally let the Iowa coaching staff know he had changed his mind via email, but the Hawkeyes let him know they weren't going to give up on him.

"[Letting the coaches know] was difficult for me. It was extremely hard for me. The relationship we had was great, and to let them know that I didn't want to go there and I wanted to commit to Wisconsin was just tough," Gordon said Monday.

"I think I sent an email, to be honest. Then they called me, and then I talked to them and then I think a few days later they came up to the school and talked to me- which was even harder than talking to them on the phone. It was difficult. [They] tried to get me to come back … tried to keep in contact with me. But after I committed to Wisconsin it was done deal."

And even though Gordon made his decision nearly three years ago, White said he warned Gordon that the stands at Kinnick Stadium are very close to the playing field, and he'll probably hear it from some of the Hawkeye faithful who were hoping he would sign with Iowa a few years ago.

"Yeah I've warned him [how loud Kinnick is]," White said. "I'm pretty sure he should know too … because he was committed there. They're right up on you- they could probably pat you on the back on the sidelines. They're going to be loud."

But after considering Gordon's history with the Hawkeyes, White corrected himself a little. A pat on the back sounded a little too friendly.

"They might slap him on the back," White joked instead.

And while both of his players might draw a little extra motivation from their previous experiences with the Hawkeyes, running backs coach Thomas Hammock said in the end Saturday's game will end up being more about re-establishing an old rivalry than any individual motivator.

"To be honest, that was so long ago it's a non-factor and a non-issue. That's what I tried to explain to Melvin- it happens all the time," Hammock said. "Guys flip and flip for whatever the case may be.

"But I think more importantly it's about this game, the rivalry. It's going to be an intense game. They've got a good team- you can throw the records out the window."

But if White or Gordon have big days this weekend and the Badgers defend the Heartland trophy, it's not a stretch to say each carry might mean a little bit more than usual.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.

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