Leistikow: Wisconsin forcefully reminds Iowa who owns the Big Ten West
MADISON, Wis. — Iowa players and their head coach chalked up Saturday’s 38-14 debacle at Wisconsin to the usual culprits you hear in postgame interviews after Hawkeye losses.
“It’s the same stuff that won the game last week,” offensive lineman Sean Welsh said, noting the stark seven-day contrast in outcomes between drubbing top-five Ohio State and getting embarrassed by top-five Wisconsin. “It’s details and execution. I’m sure you’ve heard that enough.”
Historic euphoria one week.
Historic futility the next.
Iowa’s offense gained 66 yards Saturday. That’s the worst output of the 19-year Kirk Ferentz era, “eclipsing” (if you want to call it that) the 100 yards in the disastrous desert performance in a 44-7 loss to Arizona State in 2004.
The 66 yards is the fewest Wisconsin has ever allowed to a Big Ten Conference opponent and the second-fewest ever.
That’s the third-fewest by any FBS team ranked in the top 25 over the past 20 seasons.
If you're upset Iowa didn't throw the ball more, consider this stat: Quarterback Nate Stanley dropped back to pass 28 times Saturday; the Hawkeyes netted four yards on those plays.
He threw for 41, was sacked for 37 and committed three turnovers.
It’s as bad as you can get, a week after rolling up 487 yards and 55 points against the Buckeyes. Two Josh Jackson touchdowns on interception returns saved Iowa from further scoreboard shame.
“You can’t explain it,” Ferentz said, “other than just we played clean football last week.”
That may be the truth. But it’s not the real story of Saturday’s game.
That would be the bronze bull that Wisconsin players happily carried off the field. Not the Heartland Trophy itself, of course, but what it symbolizes.
The Badgers are the bullies of the Big Ten West. They were crowned division champions Saturday after improving to 10-0. They’re heading to Indianapolis for the league title game for the fifth time in seven years since the Big Ten went to divisional play.
They're what Iowa aspires to be.
“Those guys taking it right in front of us,” linebacker Ben Niemann said, “that’s tough.”
Saturday was a reminder that Wisconsin is the bell-cow program that those inside the Iowa Football Performance Center must figure out how to take down.
The Badgers do everything well that Iowa wants to consistently do well.
They run the football with power. They play great defense. They beat you up.
The Badgers racked up 247 yards on the ground Saturday; Iowa had 25, with its longest carry a 9-yard run on a third-and-long.
They may not look like Alabama or Ohio State or USC. But Wisconsin surgically and schematically attacks you, and exposes your weaknesses.
“They have a big O-line and big running backs,” senior safety Miles Taylor said after his fourth go-round against Wisconsin. “They power, power, power, run the play-action (and) get somebody to the flat. Run, run, run, play-action. That’s their DNA. They try to get you to come up for the run and slip somebody out and, boom, it’s a big play.”
Wisconsin has been hammered by injuries all season, at almost every position. It lost its best linebacker before the season even started. Its best safety didn’t play Saturday; neither did its top two receivers. Its injury report barely fits on a piece of paper.
But it didn’t matter Saturday. It hasn't mattered all season.
The Badgers kept shuttling in fresh bodies and did whatever they wanted, on both sides of the ball, and Iowa was helpless in stopping it.
“These guys were playing at a real high level," Ferentz said, "and we weren’t able to match that.
“Usually, good teams in the Big Ten play good defense. That’s what these guys have done.”
Yeah, Iowa got the best of the Badgers here in 2015. It took four turnovers, including a fourth-quarter goal-line fumble when the quarterback tripped, but the Hawkeyes got them — by a 10-6 score.
Iowa won the West that year, and deserved it.
But the Badgers own this rivalry right now — the fake punt and 31-30 win in 2010; 28-9 at Kinnick Stadium in 2013 after a two-year series hiatus; 26-24 in 2014; 17-9 last year. Now this.
I do think the Hawkeyes are positioning themselves for a good run the next two seasons. This will probably be Stanley’s worst day as Iowa’s quarterback — 8-for-24 for 41 yards. The sophomore is going to be a good one. This will motivate him.
The Hawkeyes have young players at a lot of key positions, tackle and tight end among them.
Iowa’s 2018 schedule looks pretty friendly, too.
But the mountain it has to climb, Wisconsin, isn’t going anywhere.
As if they needed a reminder, take a look at the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten opener in 2018.
Wisconsin, on Sept. 22, at Kinnick Stadium.
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.