Leistikow: A valiant comeback, but a sobering loss for the Iowa football program

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — If Iowa knocks off unbeaten Minnesota next week and wins its final two games against Illinois and Nebraska to finish 9-3 … and Wisconsin beats Minnesota on the last day of November … we may ultimately look back and say, “You know what? The Hawkeyes were within two points of a division championship in 2019.”

Mathematical improbabilities aside, that’s the best-case scenario for the Hawkeyes now.

And by definition, that’s still not good enough.

The Iowa football program as it's constructed is not good enough to win the Big Ten West, let alone the Big Ten Conference. A 24-22 loss Saturday to its nemesis to the northeast served as a frustrating and familiar reminder.

It’s disappointing on many levels.

Let’s start with with the emotional disappointment, which was evident on the face of quarterback Nate Stanley afterward. The senior from Wisconsin — a quarterback the Paul Chryst and the Badgers dearly wanted in the recruiting process — nearly led the Hawkeyes back from a 15-point, fourth-quarter deficit.

Yet there he was, his voice cracking with emotion as he was faced with the realization that he will end his Iowa career without ever beating the Badgers.

He played his heart out. He took a wallop on his final chance to make a difference — a two-point conversion attempt with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining that left him just short of the goal line.

Inches away.

But, barring a next-to-impossible chain of events unfolding over the next three weeks, he knows he’ll never play for a Big Ten championship. A lot of veteran players were stung Saturday night.

“Now, it’s about playing for each other," said offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs, one of many players trying to put on a positive face. "Playing for the love of the game.”

Big-picture, this was a sobering moment for the Hawkeye program.

The drought of winning a Big Ten championship is now all but certain to hit 15 years, all under Kirk Ferentz’s watch. And while actually winning in Indy isn't a realistic goal if Ohio State keeps being Ohio State, the Hawkeyes getting to Indy was realistic in each of the past four seasons.

But in 2016, widely-picked division favorite Iowa couldn’t hold up against Northwestern or Wisconsin in Kinnick Stadium.

In 2017, the same Hawkeyes that crushed Ohio State were demolished by the eventual division-champ Badgers.

In 2018, they had two NFL Draft first-rounders yet failed to get it done at home against the Badgers (in a last-minute loss) or division-champ Northwestern (by four points).

And now, with their third one-score loss of the 2019 season, they’re left to watch either Minnesota or Wisconsin win the Big Ten West.

I asked Ferentz after the game what he sees as the reason(s) that Iowa hasn’t been good enough since the 12-0 regular season of 2015.

“It’s hard to do,” he said. “There are seven teams (in each division), I think, right? One’s going to go, and six aren’t. That’s the way football goes sometimes. Everybody’s competing for the same thing.

“It’s a tough conference, like most conferences. It’s hard to be at the top. But that’s what we’re working for. That’s what we’re fighting for, every time we do something.”

Danny Davis lunches for the first of three Badgers touchdowns, finishing a 17-yard jet sweep past Iowa's Michael Ojemudia.

His answer, obviously, isn’t going to satisfy those who seek radical, immediate change. Ferentz said there will be more “global” discussions about the direction of the program after the season. How much gets changed probably has to do with whether this thing ends up 10-3 or 7-6.

But certainly, priority No. 1 in the offseason should be, once and for all, finding a way to beat Wisconsin.

The Badgers continue to be Iowa's most daunting road block to special seasons. They went 7-1 against Iowa this decade. And even though the scoreboard said this was a two-point game, it didn't feel that way. Wisconsin bullied Iowa for 300 rushing yards and outgained the Hawkeyes, 474-295.

This is not a knock against Stanley — I actually think he’s been playing terrific most of the season, especially given the deficiencies at guard — but maybe Iowa needs to start thinking about transitioning to an offense built around mobile quarterbacks. Just a thought. It’s seemed too easy for Wisconsin to pressure the quarterback since switching to a 3-4 defense in 2013.

It’s clear that Wisconsin has figured out how to beat Iowa.

It's clear Iowa doesn’t know how to beat Wisconsin (unless it gets four turnovers, including one at the 1-yard line, like it did in the 10-6 win of 2015).

Put bluntly: Wisconsin is continuing to outcoach Iowa.

I thought Ferentz needed to come here and take some chances. Show your players and your fan base that no stone will be left unturned.

Why not fake a punt on fourth-and-2 from your own 43 early in the third quarter?

Why not try a trick play or two on offense?

How about more Tyler Goodson?

Why not try an onside kick with 3:12 to go? You can still use your timeouts if they recover.

It was fitting that Wisconsin marched 13 plays for 76 yards, gobbling up all but 14 seconds of the final 6:22 of the first half, to take a 14-6 halftime lead.

It was fitting that Wisconsin milked the final 3:12 with three rushing first downs … when all 78,000-plus in Camp Randall knew that it would be running.

The Badgers are finishers in the Big Ten.

The Hawkeyes, for another year, are finished in the Big Ten championship race.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 25 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.