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Iowa football players tried to express their emotions while keeping a positive spin Saturday night after what will undoubtedly be remembered as one of the most difficult results of their college careers.

“Disappointed,” quarterback Nate Stanley said.

“There were opportunities,” center Keegan Render said.

“We’re hurting,” defensive end Anthony Nelson said.

They also spoke about some of the positives, as you’d expect, that they’ll try to take away from a gut-wrenching 28-17 loss to Wisconsin, in which the Badgers marched 88 yards in the final moments to take the lead on A.J. Taylor's 17-yard touchdown catch with 57 seconds remaining.

And they were right. There were positives.

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Nate Stanley was mostly fantastic. The offensive line mostly pushed the Badgers around. The defense mostly played with grit against the toughest offensive line and best running back it’ll face all season.

But that’s what makes this all the more painful.

A win — an important program win — was there for the taking.

Wisconsin, the heavyweight of the Big Ten Conference’s West Division, was on the ropes.

Iowa, the challenger, had front-runner status in this beleaguered West within its grasp. But it couldn’t deliver the necessary knockout punch.

The obvious improvement is fine and dandy. From last year in Madison to this year, Iowa played a much better game against the Badgers.

But without the win to show for it, that doesn't matter right now.

The frustration in head coach Kirk Ferentz’s voice was obvious.

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And then, he delivered a telling quote:

“I don’t want to say we squandered an opportunity — but had we played cleaner, we would have given ourselves a better chance,” Ferentz said. “And a couple of those plays are correctable plays. Those are the ones that are tough to live with. If they beat you straight up, that's one thing.”

If they beat you straight up, that’s one thing.

Bingo. The Hawkeyes were the better team for most of this game.

And they gave this one away, with three turnovers to Wisconsin's zero.

The two special-teams gaffes will be what most fans will remember/regret most from this game — the practically unforced Kyle Groeneweg fumble and Shaun Beyer’s inadvertent touching of a rolling punt that Wisconsin turned into seven easy points.

On Groeneweg? “It's just a tough thing," Ferentz said. "... It's not characteristic of him. It won't define him at all."

On what punt returners are supposed to do with a rolling punt? “Get the hell away," Ferentz said. "There’s communication involved there.”

But not that time.

Still, the loss can’t be pinned on those two guys alone.

Iowa had chances. So many chances.

Why sneak it into Wisconsin’s 342-pound nose tackle on fourth-and-1 from Wisconsin’s 5 on the first possession of the game?

“It was called,” Stanley said. “I’m not going to question the call.”

Why not use your one challenge flag on what replays seemed to show as a first-half fumble and Iowa recovery (not an incompletion) when A.J. Epenesa dislodged the ball from Alex Hornibrook?

The play-calling when Iowa got first-and-goal at Wisconsin’s 6 to start the second half was also perplexing and left the Hawkeyes with an unsatisfying short field goal.

Even so, Iowa survived it all and held a 17-14 lead and the football two times in the fourth quarter with a chance to put the game away.

The first possession, Stanley (14-for-23, 256 yards) threw his only real bad ball of the game — an overthrow of a wide-open T.J. Hockenson. Great play call, just air-mailed it with Iowa backed up on its own 12-yard line with 11½ minutes to go.

“Just missed that throw,” Stanley said. “Something I want back.”

Still, another chance followed. With the clock winding down to 6 minutes, Iowa had second-and-5 from its own 47 — and the three-point lead. A rollout pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette had to be thrown away. A third-down deep shot to Smith-Marsette against a blitz didn't connect.

Punt. Wisconsin ball.

Eight-eight yards the other way.

Heartbreak.

The Badgers should’ve been knocked out before they even had a chance to march 88 yards and rip out Hawkeye fans' hearts.

But the Badgers, staggering after last week’s loss to Brigham Young, showed why they’re the champs. Why they haven't lost in Iowa City since 2008.

The West is theirs to lose now. Outside of Iowa, the rest of the division is a mess.

This was a major missed opportunity for the Hawkeyes, as the key head-to-head tiebreaker (not to mention the Heartland Trophy) headed to Madison.

Sure, the Badgers have tough trips to Michigan and Penn State on their schedule. OK, yeah, they could lose both. But for Iowa to catch them, they’ll probably have to play almost perfect the rest of the way.

And Saturday showed it's a long way from being perfect.

“There’s a lot of things that can happen,” Render said. “They have a lot of tough games left; we have a lot of tough games left.”

That's what Render should say. You never know. The unthinkable could happen. Football is a funny sport. It can turn quickly, depending on the character of the team.

Iowa’s got good character. Judging what we’ve seen in September, it’s a team capable of doing some really good things. A nine- or 10-win regular season is within reach.

But this Iowa program is built around the stated goal of winning Big Ten championships.

There’s now a good chance that Hawkeye fans, coaches and players will be watching Wisconsin represent the West in the Dec. 1 Big Ten title game in Indianapolis.

And if that happens, it’ll be with a hollow feeling. One that can be traced to the night of Sept. 22.

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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