IOWA CITY, Iowa — On a day when Iowa needed near-perfection to upset No. 10 Wisconsin, it failed to capitalize in just about every situation.
The Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) had their share of breaks in Saturday’s 17-9 loss at Kinnick Stadium, recovering a Badgers fumble in the end zone for a touchback, downing a punt at the Wisconsin 1-yard line. But the Hawkeyes squandered multiple chances to upset a more talented rival that’s frankly a better team.
“We have to develop a knack of becoming a little bit more opportunistic, work on the fine line,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game. “There’s always a fine line.”
Iowa’s fine line against a team like Wisconsin is as narrow as a paper cut, and it was evident Saturday. The Badgers (5-2, 2-2) are battle-tested with close losses to Michigan and Ohio State and a big win against LSU. The Badgers boast a terrific set of linebackers and bring the same level of toughness with which Iowa displays. Wisconsin was favored by Vegas and rightly so.
In games like these, fans like to chew on the offensive game plan. I get it. There were some head-scratchers as there always are. Iowa’s tempo was erratic and inconsistent. We can talk day and night about the unimaginative schemes.
In the coaches’ defense — which on this day is likely to get one tarred and feathered — Iowa tried an exotic with a double pass. Wide receiver Riley McCarron caught the ball on the left side and looked downfield for running back Akrum Wadley on the right. Wadley wasn’t open and McCarron wisely swallowed the ball for a 5-yard loss.
But more than blaming offensive coordinator Greg Davis, this was a game where the players’ lack of execution in key moments provided the difference. Four times in the game’s first 20 minutes Iowa defenders whiffed on tackles in space. The last one was a pass over the middle where Badgers tight end Tony Fumagalli bounced off strong safety Miles Taylor’s short-armed attempt for a 17-yard touchdown.
Then there was quarterback C.J. Beathard’s long pass down the left sideline just out of wide receiver Jay Scheel’s reach. A 58-yard punt pinned the Badgers inside their 1. Four plays later, that punt seemed to flip the field when Wisconsin’s P.J. Rosowski punted the ball just 29 yards to put the Hawkeyes on the Badgers’ 34. But a holding call pushed the Hawkeyes back 10 yards.
Iowa reached the Wisconsin 19 for a third-and-1, but a false start added 5 yards to the degree of difficulty. Then a potential delay-of-game penalty was averted with a timeout that negated a potential touchdown pass. An incompletion followed, and Iowa settled for a field goal.
That was just the first half. Missed tackles and big plays were part of the problem in the second half. Wisconsin tight end Quintez Cephus burned Taylor down the middle on a reception, then dragged both Taylor and free safety Brandon Snyder for 10 yards as part of a 57-yard play. Wisconsin blasted in from the 1 three plays later for a 14-6 lead in the third.
Iowa’s offense didn’t help, either, with three consecutive three-and-outs. One play call I’ll ding was a third-and-1 at the Iowa 40 with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Hawkeyes lined up with two tight ends, a fullback and a running back. Against a defense crowded against the line of scrimmage, Iowa elected to pull two linemen and hand off the ball. With maximum penetration, Wisconsin easily snuffed running back LeShun Daniels for a 3-yard loss. Either drive straight at the defense or fool them with a bootleg.
With less than six minutes left and trailing 14-6, Ferentz eschewed a fourth-and-5 pass from the Wisconsin 20 for a 38-yard field goal attempt that sailed wide right. Three plays later, Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell had Wisconsin running back Corey Clement locked up behind the line of scrimmage on third-and-1 but the running back broke free and raced 34 yards. That led to a field goal.
In the final two minutes, kick returner Desmond King took a kickoff 77 yards and nearly scored before he was caught at the Wisconsin 23. A touchdown catch by true freshman tight end Noah Fant was overturned by replay. Sometimes bad luck sidelines an upset attempt.
Iowa also had its share of fortune. Shortly before halftime, Clement fumbled into the end zone and King recovered for a touchback. Wisconsin missed a 32-yard field goal. Either one would have turn the game into an uphill climb. Wisconsin was far from perfect, too.
We’ve watched many Iowa-Wisconsin games between evenly matched teams. This wasn’t one of them. The box score doesn’t lie. Iowa failed miserably on third down (2 of 13) and in time of possession (37:02 for Wisconsin, 22:58 for Iowa). Wisconsin nearly double up Iowa in yardage (423-236).
The Hawkeyes displayed more than enough toughness to hang with the Badgers. Save for a few missed tackles, it easily was the defense’s best effort. But this year the Hawkeyes needed more than just guts to beat Wisconsin. They didn’t need to be perfect. But without any playmakers in the passing game, they needed perfect execution. That’s an awfully difficult way to win a football game.