Analysis: Iowa waited too long to inject some tempo in its offense

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — Iowa’s gameplan Saturday was the same as it always is.

The Hawkeyes wanted to establish the run against No. 16 Wisconsin. They wanted to win the battles for time of possession and field position.

That’s all great in theory. In reality, it worked like this: Iowa couldn’t convert on third down, or get a touchdown when handed a turnover in the red zone. One promising first-half drive ended when center Tyler Linderbaum and quarterback Nate Stanley couldn’t execute the snap properly and Wisconsin happily fell on the fumble.

By halftime, Wisconsin led 14-6 and No. 18 Iowa had held the ball for only 10 minutes, 6 seconds. Stanley had attempted six passes, completing three of them. Iowa had 93 yards of offense and its fan base had a dispiriting sense of déjà vu.

It wasn’t until the Badgers took a 21-6 lead with 17 minutes remaining in the contest that Iowa’s coaches seemed to realize that Wisconsin was trying to do everything that the Haweyes were trying to do, only much better.

That’s when Iowa injected some tempo in its offense. That’s when Stanley started to air things out. And that’s when the Hawkeyes rallied for 16 fourth-quarter points only to fall 24-22 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Wisconsin has won four consecutive games in this series. It should be evident by now that, when it comes to old-school, smash-mouth football, the Badgers are the master now.

Iowa adjusted too late Saturday.

Nov 9, 2019; Madison, WI, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Tyrone Tracy Jr. (3) rushes for a touchdown after catching a pass during the fourth quarter against the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

“We started going to our tempo and it’s like they couldn’t really keep up with it,” Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “We’d kind of been slow and methodical. We thought it was going to be a battle of time of possession. We started going with tempo and it was working. So we just stuck with it. And that was nice.”

Iowa’s first seven drives produced 125 yards and two Keith Duncan field goals. Sure, there were some signs of life in there. True freshman tight end Sam LaPorta caught a 16-yard pass on Iowa’s first play. True freshman running back Tyler Goodson scampered for 21 yards on a second-quarter carry. Junior running back Toren Young picked up a workmanlike 45 yards on his eight first-half carries.

But you don’t keep up with Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, perhaps the best running back in the nation, by playing things conservatively. Taylor finished with 250 yards on the ground, or exactly twice the amount the Hawkeyes managed in seven possessions.

Finally, trailing by 15 points, Stanley emerged from the huddle, reared back and found Tyrone Tracy for a 26-yard gain down Wisconsin’s sideline. It was the first time Tracy had been targeted.

The Hawkeyes ran up to the line of scrimmage. Stanley connected with wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette for 17 yards, Nico Ragaini for 3 and another pair of passes to Tracy that picked up 20 yards to the Wisconsin 2-yard line as the third quarter ended.

After an incomplete pass to tight end Shaun Beyer and a 1-yard loss up the middle on Young’s only carry of the second half, Stanley drilled a 3-yard scoring pass to Ragaini. Iowa trailed 21-13. Things weren’t over quite yet.

Iowa’s next drive began at the Wisconsin 47-yard line thanks to a Matt Hankins interception. Stanley found Ragaini and Tracy again for a pair of 9-yard gains before Duncan’s 39-yard field goal cut the deficit to 21-16.

The Badgers kicked a field goal to restore the eight-point lead.

Stanley got the ball at his 25 with 3 minutes, 23 seconds remaining. One play later, Tracy was dancing in the end zone after a 75-yard catch and run that nearly brought Iowa all the way back. Wisconsin stuffed Iowa’s two-point conversion try a foot short of the end zone. That was the ballgame.

“It’s just a matter of, how many possessions are we going to get?” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said when asked why he started using an up-tempo offense 43 minutes into the game. “Because they were doing a good job (controlling the clock). That’s how they like to play. That was our thinking.

“It (the no-huddle) also helped us a little bit, I think.”

Of course it did. It almost led to a stirring victory.

But the question is: Why wait so long to try it?

Iowa's Nate Stanley throws during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Madison, Wis. Wisconsin won 24-22. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

Wisconsin, which leads the nation in time of possession, held the football for 37:24 on Saturday. The Hawkeyes were never going to beat the Badgers at that game. Wisconsin has Taylor; Iowa does not.

What the Hawkeyes did have was a senior quarterback, a trio of dynamic receivers and what should have been a willingness to pull out all the stops to finally get a victory in this series.

Instead, they played it too safe for too long.

And lost the game anyway.

When Iowa hosts Wisconsin next year, the message should be clear: If you’re going to go down, at least try something different.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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