IOWA CITY, Iowa. - The game was far from pretty, but the No. 24 Wisconsin Badgers eked out a 28-9 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes on Saturday, holding on to the Heartland Trophy in the process.
The Badgers (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) leaned heavily on their defense for most of the game, after their offense stalled out on each of their first six drives. The Hawkeyes (5-4, 2-3) started their first five drives with excellent field position in the process, but the Badgers held Iowa to just two field goals in the process.
Wisconsin head coach Gary Andersen said the game could have gotten out of hand if the Badgers allowed the Hawkeyes to convert their redzone trips in to touchdowns, but the Hawkeyes didn't convert any of their four redzone trips into touchdowns in the game.
"It was a huge point in the football game," Andersen said after the game. "We didn't have anything going, other than we were playing pretty salty defense in the first quarter. We couldn't run the ball it seemed like and inch and we couldn't throw the ball. Our punt game was a little all over the place with the wind.
"For our defense to hang in there and force them to kick those field goals was big. I thought the defensive staff mixed up a little bit down there in the redzone, and it forced them to kick some field goals. It could have jumped out of control really quick.
The Badgers found something of an offensive rhythm in the second quarter, but the going was still tough for their normal star players. Running backs Melvin Gordon and James White combined for 59 net yards on 15 carries in the first half, good enough for just 4.4 yards per carry.
Gordon said he thought the Hawkeyes keyed on him early on in the game, but in the end it opened things up for White, who finished the game with 132 yards and two touchdowns on 19 touches.
"It opens up things for other players," Gordon said after the game. "If they're keying on me, good things can come from other guys."
The Badgers eventually hit pay dirt late in the second quarter when quarterback Joel Stave hit tight end Jacob Pedersen over the middle for a 44-yard touchdown. Stave completed 11-of-19 passes in the game for 144 yards, throwing two touchdowns and an interception along the way.
His other score came on a 20-yard pass to Jared Abbrederis midway through the third quarter, but Abbrederis took a big hit in the endzone and left the game with a chest injury.
The Badgers had to play the rest of the game without their leading receiver, but Andersen said he thinks Abbrederis is fine after the trainers had a chance to look at him.
"It looks like he'll be fine," Andersen said. "I don't know exactly what he has- if it's a bruise or what, but he looked OK when I saw him in there. Hopefully we'll know more in the next couple of days."
And while Wisconsin's offense hit some tough sledding early on, the Badgers said they were thrilled to earn a hard-fought road win and hold on to the Heartland Trophy for another season- in addition to becoming bowl-eligible with their sixth win of the season.
It was Andersen's first trophy game as Wisconsin's head coach, and the new head coach seemed anxious to go celebrate with his team and the big brass bull before they all head back to Madison.
"I'm going to get a picture with [the trophy]," Andersen said. "It's going in my office."
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