Iowa rally comes up a foot short; Wisconsin emerges with a fourth straight win in rivalry

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — If one play could typify Big Ten Conference football ...

If one play could typify the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry ...

If one play could typify the Hawkeyes’ season …

It was this.

The No. 18 Hawkeyes had somehow scratched themselves out of a 15-point deficit in the final minutes at Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.

Needing a two-point conversion to tie the score, Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley stepped backward after receiving a shotgun snap and then bolted up the middle. He aimed his 6-foot-4, 243-pound frame squarely at the goal line 3 yards away. He was nearly there.

Wisconsin linebacker Chris Orr, at 6-feet, 224 pounds, was the first defender there to meet him, smacking him so hard you could hear it in the upper levels of the stadium.

Stanley was short. So was Iowa, for a fourth consecutive time in this rivalry. And for a third time this season when facing ranked opponents.

No. 16 Wisconsin (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) prevailed 24-22. The Hawkeyes (6-3, 3-3) saw their Big Ten West title hopes all but end.

One foot short.

“I really don’t know how close it was. We hit each other pretty good,” Stanley said. “We felt confident with that play. We knew that that was our two-point play from the time we installed it on Tuesday.”

Iowa has failed in its past 10 two-point conversion attempts.

But it wasn’t for lack of effort by Stanley, a senior and native of Wisconsin.

Wisconsin's Matt Henningsen sacks Iowa's Nate Stanley during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)

“Total confidence in him,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He’s going to compete his tail off. And he’s a first-class guy. I’m real happy he’s our quarterback.”

Iowa was punchless on offense for most of the first three quarters. Its defense had no answer for Badgers star running back Jonathan Taylor, who finished with 250 yards on the ground.

So when the Badgers took a 21-6 lead with 2 minutes, 8 seconds remaining in the third quarter, things looked bleak.

The last time Iowa faced a ranked team on the road, the offense found no life and absorbed a 10-3 loss at Michigan on Oct. 5. That was followed by a 17-12 home loss to Penn State.

This time, Stanley helped the Hawkeyes mount a rally. He threw touchdown passes to Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy, sandwiched around Keith Duncan’s third field goal of the game.

The Iowa defense finally kept Wisconsin out of the end zone on a late drive, forcing a field goal that kept the Hawkeyes within striking distance.

“We were just scratching for every inch. That’s just the definition of fighting,” Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “Offense, I think they took a step forward and they never gave up. And that showed throughout the game.”

Stanley needed only one play when Iowa got the ball back at its 25-yard line with 3:23 left, down 24-16. He hit Tracy, in man-to-man coverage over the middle, in stride just past midfield and the speedy wide receiver did the rest. Just like that, Iowa had a chance to force overtime.

The two-point conversion play called for Stanley to run behind guard Kyler Schott and tackle Tristan Wirfs. Running back Mekhi Sargent was also expected to throw a lead block, but he ended up being partially screened by the umpire. Still, the lane appeared to be there for Stanley to score.

Until it wasn’t.

“I was a little late to get off the double-team. I probably should have gotten off a little faster. But it was a good play call. It was designed great. We got the look exactly how we wanted and we just couldn’t get in there,” Schott said.

“I was right behind Nate. I was trying to push him through. It was a big hit, but we’ve got to get it in next time. He’s the toughest dude we have. He’s willing to throw his body on the line for all of us.”

Stanley threw his body into the line, head-first. As usual against Wisconsin, it wasn't enough.

The Hawkeyes opted not to try an onside kick trailing by two points. Ferentz, with two timeouts remaining, put his confidence in his defense to get a stop and Duncan to make a game-winning field goal.

Iowa never got the ball back. The Badgers turned to Taylor and the running game to pick up three first downs. They kneeled down twice to end things.

The Hawkeyes trudged out of the stadium with a loss, haunted by how far they had fallen behind to begin with, and how close Stanley had eventually come to tying things.

One foot short. And a 200-mile bus ride ahead.

Iowa returns home to host Minnesota next Saturday.

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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