Leistikow: Hawkeyes fail at the little things in crushing loss to Wisconsin

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Details matter, inches matter in determining Big Ten Conference championships.

Iowa Hawkeyes fans know that all too well, with L.J. Scott’s lunging touchdown run still burned in their memories from the harrowing 2015 league title-game loss to Michigan State.

Wisconsin junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook orchestrates a sneak running play that resulted in a Wisconsin touchdown in the final minute against Iowa on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Now comes another last-minute defeat that's going to sting for a long time.

Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6) can't come up with a pass while being covered by Wisconsin cornerback Deron Harrell (8) and Wisconsin safety Scott Nelson (9) during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium, the 2018 Hawkeyes showed they weren’t detailed enough to be ready for the big-time in a 28-17 loss to No. 16 Wisconsin.

Nate Stanley was fantastic. Boy, he was good. Looked like the quarterback so many thought he would be this season.

So was the offensive plan from Brian Ferentz, the architect of last year’s pitiful 66-yard output in Madison.

But Alex Hornibrook’s dart of a 17-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Taylor with 57 seconds took that all away. Sophomore linebacker Nick Niemann face-planted in coverage on the play, leaving Taylor wide open. With one left-handed throw into the south end zone, the Badgers had their sixth win in the past seven tries with Iowa.

And then as Iowa tried to forge a winning drive, a Stanley pass popped out of Ihmir Smith-Marsette's hands and into the arms of Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards.

The Badgers added another meaningless TD in the final minute to rub salt in the fresh wound.

It never should’ve gotten to that point.

ANALYSIS:Iowa gives Wisconsin QB one opportunity too many, and pays the price

Wisconsin wide receiver A.J. Taylor (4) celebrates with Wisconsin tight end Jake Ferguson (84) after catching a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter during an NCAA football game on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

After twice seemingly having tipped the control its way, a pair of Iowa special-teams blunders proved costly when push came to shove.

The Kyle Groeneweg fumble on a punt return didn’t directly translate to Wisconsin points; but it probably cost Iowa a crucial go-ahead score late in the first half. Groeneweg was barely grazed by a Badger defender; a fifth-year senior has to secure the ball better than that.

But the big blunder was Shaun Beyer, also on a punt return, inadvertently backing into a rolling punt with Iowa ahead 10-7 in the third quarter. Wisconsin recovered at Iowa’s 10-yard line and scored seven gift-wrapped points three plays later.

What are Iowa's guys supposed to do in that situation?

“Get the hell away," head coach Kirk Ferentz said bluntly. "There’s communication involved there. It seemed like everyone was getting the message. For whatever reason, it didn’t get quite get communicated. When you’re in that area, it’s dangerous.”

Another detail Iowa couldn't execute: red-zone offense. The Hawkeyes scored just three points on two drives that reached Wisconsin’s 5-yard line. A failed quarterback sneak on fourth-and-1 foiled Iowa’s first drive of the game.

This was the night that was going to essentially establish a clear front-runner in the Big Ten West.

And the team that made no major mistakes, Wisconsin, is that team. It’s one of the reasons that the Badgers have now won five straight times in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes, who were minus-3 in turnovers.

Iowa did a lot of good things Saturday night. But not enough of the little things.

"Really the keys now are how we respond, and how we move forward," Ferentz said. "That's where our focus will start tomorrow." 

Iowa’s fifth offensive play qualified as recent-history-making.

When Stanley connected with tight end T.J. Hockenson for a 24-yard completion on a well-executed crossing route, it marked the Hawkeyes’ longest play from scrimmage in this rivalry since 2014.

The Hawkeyes’ longest play in the forgettable 2017 loss was a 10-yard catch by Nick Easley. The longest in 2016 was a 21-yard catch by Akrum Wadley. The longest in 2015 was a 21-yard catch by Matt VandeBerg.

Stanley later hit Hockenson for 46 yards and 45; and Noah Fant for 20. Ivory Kelly-Martin ran for 19 and 18 yards in the first half; Smith-Marsette ran for 20; Nick Easley caught one for 22.

The moral of the story? Nothing big to celebrate here, but just a reminder of how painstakingly difficult it has been for the Hawkeyes to move the football against these Badgers. The good news, Iowa showed it can move the ball in 2018 against Wisconsin. Iowa gained 404 yards Saturday.

The officiating in the first half left quite a bit to be desired.

Their ball-spotting was all over the place. It remains one of my biggest pet peeves in college football.

They embarrassingly messed up the on-field call of punt returner Kyle Groeneweg being down before fumbling, when he clearly was not. (The crew had to go to replay to correct it.)

But they also might’ve missed a big Wisconsin fumble late in the second quarter. Turns out, Iowa’s coaches did, too.

When A.J. Epenesa arrived at Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook as he attempted to throw on third-and-8, the ball squirted forward and an Iowa player recovered. Incomplete pass, officials ruled.

On replay, it sure looked like Hornibrook lost control of the football well before his arm moved forward. It should have been a fumble, and Iowa ball deep in Badgers territory in a 7-all game.

The replay official didn’t buzz in. That’s a problem.

But Iowa coaches upstairs need to be all over this stuff. They need to have eyes on every replay, immediately, and be ready to relay to Kirk Ferentz that a call needs to be challenged, especially when it could have game-changing proportions as this one did. The possibility of losing a first-half timeout would have been well worth any risk.  

Up next for the Hawkeyes: A bye week, the Gophers and a lot of time on the road.

Iowa plays just once at home in the next 48 days (Oct. 20 vs. Maryland). After a much-needed bye week — the Wisconsin game always takes a physical toll — the Hawkeyes start a stretch of four road games out of five at Minnesota on Oct. 6.

The Gophers appear beatable. After a 3-0 nonconference start, they got hammered at Maryland 42-13 on Saturday. They gave up 432 yards and committed three turnovers. P.J. Fleck is now 2-8 in conference play since his Big Ten arrival.

Iowa has won the past three meetings against the Gophers and should be favored to make it four in a row. The Hawkeyes, though, will have to prove they can take control of the Big Ten road to have a special season.

After Minnesota, they’ve got trips to Indiana (a feisty team that looks better than expected) on Oct. 13; to Penn State (a major revenge spot after the Hawkeyes’ 2016 embarrassment in Happy Valley) on Oct. 27; and to Purdue (which looked really good in thrashing No. 25 Boston College) on Nov. 4.

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.