IOWA CITY, Iowa — Never has a long-standing football cliche ever proven more true than midway through the Iowa-Wisconsin game last October.
The Badgers faced second-and-goal at the Hawkeyes’ 1-yard line with 7:50 left in the game. Iowa led 10-6 and brought in a goal-line defense consisting of six linemen, three linebackers, a safety and a cornerback. Wisconsin also loaded up heavy with two tight ends, two fullbacks and a running back.
It was a rumble all game and never more so than on this play with everything at stake at Camp Randall Stadium.
“Football is a game of inches,” said Iowa defensive tackle Nathan Bazata, who spouted the old cliche. “For us as D-linemen, if your hands aren’t in the right place, that could be the difference for you not getting off the block and making a play. So for offensive linemen, that’s the same thing.”
To respect the play’s outcome, it’s important to understand the context. The Badgers had won the past three rivalry games with the Hawkeyes. Wisconsin’s football profile soared past its border neighbors, with whom they’ve battled evenly for more than a century.
Wisconsin had won or shared Big Ten divisional or league titles four of the previous five years. The Badgers held the Heartland Trophy since 2010. Since losing that traveling trophy, Iowa was 33-28.
Crouching on that goal line, Iowa’s defensive line knew the stakes. What they didn’t know was how it would impact their season.
“At that moment, what I really thought about was really coming off the ball and just trying to stop these guys because if they get in the end zone, then that’s the game,” Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson said. “Our mindset was just coming off and attacking these guys up front.”
— Chris Ruth (@ChrisRuthIOWA) July 9, 2016
Wisconsin lined up in an I-formation with double tight ends on the line of scrimmage and fullback Derek Watt in the backfield off the right tight end. Watt shifted in motion to his left and stopped directly behind left guard Michael Deiter. Five of Iowa’s six defensive linemen were in four-point stances with both hands fisted into the Camp Randall Stadium FieldTurf. Two defenders flanked the line, three more backed it up in the end zone.
In Iowa’s goal-line front, undersized defensive end Nate Meier, slid inside to the A gap between the center and right guard. Johnson was to Meier’s left overlooking the B gap while Bazata was over the A gap between the center and left guard. Another defensive tackle, Faith Ekakitie, lined up on the B gap between the left guard and left tackle.
Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave took the snap, turned right and tried to reverse pivot and hand off to running back Taiwan Deal. Both Watt and second fullback Derek Straus aimed left with Watt sealing off the outside and Straus gunning for Bazata.
Meier, a compact tweener at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, knifed through his gap on the snap. The hard, quick motion forced Wisconsin right guard Micah Kapoi to step back. Kapoi’s left foot stepped on Stave, who fell as he attempted to reach Deal. The ball squirted free as it touched Deal, and Meier drilled the Wisconsin running back. The football fell to the turf and spun three times at the 4-yard line.
Several players converged on the ball, which squirted to the 5. Ekakitie had the best chance, and he fell on top of it. The play thwarted another Badgers threat and kept Iowa in the lead.
One inch, one play, one possession, one game, one season.
Neither Johnson nor Bazata saw the ball bounce free. Both were so concerned with their gap integrity they were among the last players to notice that Ekakitie recovered the fumble.
“This offensive line is very physical,” Johnson said. “They come off the ball low and if your pads are high, it’s going to bad for you. What we focus on is coming out low, tough and physical.”
“I was just trying to crawl because when you’re getting on the 1, that’s all you can do,” Bazata said. “You can’t stand up, otherwise you’re going to get blown back. Honestly, after the play I didn’t know until Faith got up with the ball that there was a fumble. It was just a heck of a play and a heads up play by Faith.”
After the game, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said, “Absolutely it takes the wind out of your sail.”
The game hardly was over at that point. The Hawkeyes went three-and-out twice more that quarter, and both times Wisconsin had the ball inside Iowa territory. On their last possession, the Badgers drove to the 16 before failing to convert a fourth-and-2. Iowa held on to win 10-6.
The win provided Iowa with oodles of confidence. It propelled the Hawkeyes to a 12-0 regular-season record and the Big Ten West Division title. Wisconsin dropped only one more Big Ten game — a controversial 13-7 loss to Northwestern — to finish 6-2 in league play. Had Wisconsin punched it in from the 1-yard line, the Badgers would have earned the trip to Indianapolis. Iowa likely would not have played in the Rose Bowl for the first time since 1990.
“We played our hearts out and we left everything out on the field,” Iowa defensive back Desmond King said. “I saw the ball on the ground and we seized the opportunity and we took it. That’s what it feels like and what it looks like when you’re doing your part and doing your job as a team. We seized the opportunity.”
It’s not just a cliche to say football is a game of inches, not when one inch and a chain reaction decided the course of both teams’ seasons and the West Division crown.