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The Iowa coach reacts to a 38-14 loss to Wisconsin that wasn’t that close. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral

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There's no way to sugar-coat the worst offensive performance of the Kirk Ferentz era.

But unpacking how it happened might teach us areas that need to be addressed for the Hawkeyes' final two games vs. Purdue (Saturday, 2:30 p.m., Big Ten Network) and at Nebraska (Nov. 24, 3 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

Iowa's 66 total yards only told part of the story in Saturday's 38-14 loss at Wisconsin.

The Hawkeyes (6-4 overall, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) struggled in all three phases. Let's get to the tape — and try not to ever speak of it again.

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Where were the tight ends?

This was the most common postgame question I heard: What did Wisconsin do to take away tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson?

The duo that combined for nine receptions and four touchdowns the previous week against Ohio State was suffocated Saturday.

There were no tight-end targets in the first half, four for the game. Hockenson had one catch for six yards. Fant was shut out.

The answer has multiple layers.

Let’s unwrap it, starting with when Iowa still had momentum.

The Hawkeyes were up, 7-3, and James Butler had just powered 6 and 4 yards for a first down on the first two plays after Jake Gervase’s interception.

A great time to get the ball to the tight end, right?

And that’s when perhaps the genius of Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense was revealed: Blitzing without blitzing.

With both tight ends on the field, Stanley dropped to pass on first-and-10, and the Badgers initially rushed only three players — with both outside linebackers picking up Fant and Hockenson. And while Stanley's first read was taken away, inside linebacker T.J. Edwards coming on a delayed rush up the middle. The pressure hurried Stanley, who threw the ball away.

That was the story all day. Wisconsin only rushed four, but Stanley never knew which four were coming. That’s why I call it blitzing without blitzing. And the tight ends were almost always accounted for.

On a second-and-8 call in the second quarter, Wisconsin brought safety Joe Ferguson as a fourth rusher from the left side while the right end stuck with Butler breaking on a possible screen pass. Stanley again hurried his throw, which was batted down.

Then to start the third quarter — Iowa still felt it was in the game, down 17-7 — Stanley was sacked for a 10-yard loss against a four-man rush when Leon Jacobs beat right tackle Tristan Wirfs.

“They came out with the stuff we expected them to," Stanley said afteward. "They just played better than us.”

What I saw on review: A combination of inexperience between Stanley and two freshmen tackles (in identifying the Wisconsin pressure) and a first-year offensive coordinator (Brian Ferentz couldn’t adjust after pushing all the right buttons vs. Ohio State) leading to very little time to throw — which made two 6-foot-5 tight ends invisible.

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Iowa QB Nate Stanley finished 8 of 24 for 41 yards with 3 turnovers. Chad Leistikow / The Register

The drops were big

Another factor in the lack of passing production can’t be ignored: Drops. Iowa had five of them, making Stanley's 8-for-24, 41-yard line worse than it should've been.

Three drops were especially crushing.

The biggie: Fant should’ve caught a ball up the right seam after Iowa regained possession midway through the third quarter down only 17-14 on the shoulders of two Josh Jackson pick-six interceptions.

On first-and-10 from its own 30, Stanley fired a deep pass to Fant — who had a step on safety Ferguson. The ball had some heat and could’ve been thrown with better touch, but it hit Fant in the outstretched hands and fell incomplete. Fant needs to make that grab, especially in a tight game where yards are at a premium. With better execution, it could've been a 70-yard touchdown and 21-17 Iowa lead.

To make matters worse, a pass on the next play to Nick Easley that would've gone for first-down yardage was mishandled.

Then came an ill-fated third-and-10 miscue. James Daniels’ too-early snap squirted loose, and Wisconsin's Leon Jacobs recovered and took it into the end zone for a 24-14 Badgers lead. And that was basically that.

An earlier drop by Ihmir Smith-Marsette also stalled Hawkeye momentum. Stanley’s third-and-2 pass in the second quarter hit the freshman receiver right in the No. 6 on his jersey.

That gave Wisconsin a short field and set up its first touchdown — which you’ll read about next.

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Iowa LB Josey Jewell discusses the 38-14 loss to Wisconsin. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral

Poor edge contain

What Josey Jewell sees in the film room and on the field is impressive. Of course the problem is, he can’t be everywhere at once.

Iowa’s star middle linebacker said after the game the Hawkeyes needed to come “downhill 100 percent” — meaning seeing and committing to your defensive assignments.

“That’s something today we had a little trouble on. Being able to come downhill, not knowing where the ball was going to spill,” Jewell said. “We needed to people to set edges. That sometimes didn’t happen.”

Back-to-back snaps to finish Wisconsin’s first touchdown drive accentuated what he was talking about.

On first-and-10 from Iowa’s 36, the Badgers’ fake counter-run to the right fooled linebacker Bo Bower, who was too slow to see tight end Troy Fumagalli coming his way, and he was wide-open for an 11-yard reception in the left flat out of play-action.

On the next play, Wisconsin attacked the same left edge on an end around to Kendric Pryor out of a bunched-up formation. The play was beautifully crafted, but cornerback Manny Rugamba’s hesitancy to commit to the edge made him a sitting duck for pulling center Tyler Biadasz.

That pancake block served as an emphatic change of momentum and a snapshot image of the afternoon.

It also is a reminder of how good Desmond King was in run support as a four-year starter for the Hawkeyes. Stuffing outside runs was one of the Thorpe Award winner’s hidden strengths. Rugamba and Jackson are good cover guys, but they have a lot of room to grow in being physical against the run.

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The Iowa cornerback is playing at an all-American level. Josh Jackson leads the nation with 5 interceptions. Chad Leistikow/HawkCentral

Punting is losing for Iowa

We know the offense stunk Saturday. And as 247 Wisconsin rushing yards would attest, the Iowa defense was not without fault.

But that defense continued to give Iowa chances at momentum, with Jackson’s forced fumble of Jonathan Taylor (and a Rugamba recovery) giving the Hawkeyes the ball at their own 49 and trailing just 10-7 late in the first half.

From that moment forward, Iowa’s offense had two possessions and its defense gave up three yards on three plays. Yet Wisconsin still flipped field position 24 yards in its favor thanks to poor Hawkeye special teams. What happened?

Bad punt: After a three-and-out (shock), Colten Rastetter hit a terrible 21-yard punt that was downed at Wisconsin’s 27. Iowa needed a high kick to pin the Badgers at their own 10, at least.

Bad judgment: After Brady Reiff’s sack, Wisconsin was punting from its own 30. Return man Matt VandeBerg stood at his own 26, on the left hash. Anthony Lotti’s kick went that direction, yet VandeBerg for some reason couldn’t get to the ball that landed at the 32 — and rolled an additional 24 yards to the Iowa 8. What should’ve been a 38-yard punt was 62.

Bad situation: After Stanley was sacked, Rastetter had to punt from the back of his end zone. With the snap coming from the 1, Iowa understandably went into maximum protection. Rastetter’s punt traveled 45 yards, but with no gunners downfield, Wisconsin’s Nick Nelson whizzed past late-arriving tacklers to Iowa’s 26.

Three plays after that three-punt sequence, Wisconsin scored to take a 17-7 lead into halftime.

Bottom line: Two Iowa punts netted 47 yards while one Wisconsin punt netted 62.

That trade-off can’t happen, and — much like Iowa’s performance Saturday — there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.

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