IOWA CITY, Iowa — The team’s best tackler spent Saturday’s game watching from the sideline with a tight hamstring. The top wide receiver hobbled to the locker room with a chest injury and missed much of the second half. A co-starter at defensive end was in California dealing with an undisclosed family issue.
Wisconsin’s football team didn’t have close to its full set of key players — and that was before a tight end and center suffered fourth-quarter injuries.
It didn’t matter.
No. 22 Wisconsin still found the reserves of character to fend off Iowa for a 28-9 victory at Kinnick Stadium in a game that showcased the best of the Badgers, even as they were particularly susceptible to playing at their worst.
"One thing I’m going to remember this team for forever regardless of what happens the rest of the season is they’re never fazed," Wisconsin coach Gary Andersen said. "The next kid that’s got to go in, whether it’s on special teams, offense or defense, they seem to be prepared. They get in the moment. The most important part of that is they rally around each other."
The issues began Thursday night, when defensive end Tyler Dippel informed Andersen he needed to leave the team because of what Andersen described as "a really bad family situation." Dippel flew to California, which allowed Pat Muldoon to play twice as many snaps as usual. Muldoon, a redshirt senior, then came up with one of the biggest plays of the game.
With Wisconsin leading just 14-9 in the fourth quarter, Muldoon made an acrobatic interception, leaping for a pass that bounced off the back helmet of Hawkeyes right guard Andrew Donnal. The Badgers took control at the Iowa 25 yard line and scored three plays later on running James White’s 11-yard touchdown for a 21-9 lead that helped put the game away.
"Dippel’s one of my best friends," Muldoon said. "Everything we did out there was for him."
Muldoon noted that linebacker Chris Borland, who dressed but didn’t play because of his hamstring injury, rallied the defense before the series to get a stop for Dippel.
Borland has clearly been the Badgers’ most important defensive player all season — his 57 total tackles entering Saturday were 23 more than any other player on the team. But after testing his hamstring during warmups, he informed coaches and backup Marcus Trotter that he wouldn’t be able to play.
Trotter, who had never started a game in his career, finished with a team-high nine tackles. He matched his effort from two weeks earlier, when he subbed in after Borland strained his hamstring on punt coverage during the first quarter against Illinois.
"I think we’re resilient," Trotter said. "We’re a bunch of guys, a lot of walk-ons but a lot of guys that were under-recruited. We came here believing. And that’s the biggest thing is really believing in each other, believing in the program, believing in what the coaches tell us.
"Even though we have key players that are not playing, we believe in ourselves. It was a very big test watching Iowa. They’re big-boy football. We know we can play that type of game. Having some starters not playing, we knew we had to step up. I think it’s just the art of believing."
If the absences of Dippel and Borland weren’t significant enough, Wisconsin then lost wide receiver Jared Abbrederis to a chest injury after he caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Joel Stave for a 14-6 lead in the third quarter. Abbrederis walked to the locker room with team trainers and didn’t play the rest of the game. Tight end Brian Wozniak and center Dallas Lewallen suffered fourth-quarter injuries that appeared to be minor but also did not return.
Abbrederis’ value to Wisconsin is well known by now. He is Stave’s favorite target and his 46 catches are 38 more than any other wide receiver on the team. But the Badgers’ offense moved the ball without him anyway, scoring the touchdown after Muldoon’s interception and tacking on another White touchdown in the fourth quarter.
"Obviously he’s an important player, he’s a key to our offense," Stave said of Abbrederis. "That being said, when he’s out, we’ve got to make sure we’re moving the ball. You can’t (say), ‘Well, if Jared was in.’ It’s just a matter of staying positive and moving on to the next guy, making sure we’re doing everything we can."
Players acknowledged the way in which Wisconsin won made the postgame celebration even sweeter. They took turns hoisting the Heartland Trophy, a bronzed bull that belongs to the winner of the Wisconsin-Iowa border rivalry. Linebackers Trotter, Conor O’Neill and Derek Landisch even carried the trophy toward the corner of the stands to allow visiting Badgers fans in the first few rows to touch the bull.
The game also represented an important step for the Badgers as they continued their quest to sneak into the top 14 of the final Bowl Championship Series standings and earn a possible at-large spot in one of the biggest bowl games in college football. Wisconsin (6-2, 4-1 in the Big Ten) became bowl eligible Saturday against what many deemed to be the most difficult opponent remaining on the Badgers’ schedule.
Of course, Wisconsin has far greater goals for this season.
"We know ultimately if we do our business, we’ll be in a good spot," Trotter said. "But the only way to run a mile is to take the first steps."
On Saturday, with an especially effective "next man up" philosophy, the Badgers took their biggest steps yet.