Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa reacts to a 24-22 loss at Wisconsin, in which the Badgers' gained nearly 500 yards. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
MADISON, Wis. — There will be plenty of blame to go around for Iowa's 24-22 loss to Wisconsin, the fourth in a row in this recently one-sided series.
But when push came to bullish shove Saturday before 78,018 fans at Camp Randall Stadium, you need to tip your cap to Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor.
He’s that good.
On a night that honored the Badgers' 1999 Big Ten Conference championship, Taylor delivered a Ron Dayne-like performance. And Iowa was helpless to stop him.
“He doesn’t run into gaps foolishly," Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. "He’s able to see things happen before they happen and make smart decisions. That’s what he did all night.
“We didn’t tackle well, either.”
A defining moment, in my mind, was on the heels of Iowa's 10-point run to cut Wisconsin's lead from 21-6 to 21-16. With nearly 10 minutes to play, Iowa's defense needed to make a key stop. But on Wisconsin's first play after the kickoff, Taylor blazed through the middle of Iowa's defense for a 36-yard gain.
To that point, Iowa’s defense was the only one in the nation that hadn’t allowed a run of more than 20 yards this season. Taylor's jaunt netted a key field goal.
Then, after Nate Stanley’s 75-yard laser to Tyrone Tracy Jr. (and failed two-point conversion) cut the Wisconsin lead to 24-22, Taylor struck again — this time for a 42-yarder, again through the heart of Iowa's defense, that salted most of the remaining clock away.
Behind Taylor, Wisconsin dominating the time-of-possession battle: 37 minutes, 24 seconds to Iowa’s 22:36.
The fantastic junior finished with 31 carries for 250 yards.
“They were getting a good push," defensive end Chauncey Golston said. "He wasn’t going down on first contact.”
Wisconsin gained 474 yards, including 300 on the ground, to Iowa's 295. That's the most yardage Iowa has allowed since 579 in a September 2017 loss to Penn State (which was also decided by two points).
So no, this one wasn't solely on the offense.
Credit Taylor. Credit Wisconsin.
Even though Iowa and Wisconsin seem to be evenly matched in personnel, there's of late been a big difference at running back (except for Shonn Greene in 2008, the last time Iowa has defeated Wisconsin at Kinnick Stadium).
Wisconsin always seems to have a Dayne, a Montee Ball, a James White, a Melvin Gordon ... or a Taylor.
A decade of Wisconsin domination against Iowa is now complete. The Badgers won seven of eight meetings from 2010 to 2019 against Iowa, including the past four.
The good news? Taylor, even though he’s just a junior, will be playing on Sundays in 2020.
Iowa Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz talks about the lack of an onside kick, Nate Stanley's performance and a tough loss. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
After one quarter of football in Madison, Iowa fans had to feel pretty good.
The Hawkeyes had turned an Epenesa sack-fumble into three points. The Badgers looked undisciplined with a rash of penalties and missed a short field goal.
And, now, the running game was starting to gain momentum. Toren Young was rushing with purpose, ripping off gains of 5, 12, 6, 12 and 4 to put Iowa at Wisconsin’s 41-yard line for a second-and-6.
But a botched snap between center Tyler Linderbaum and Stanley resulted in a lost fumble, with Wisconsin linebacker Jack Sanborn recovering the football at the bottom of the scrum.
That was the moment that seemed to change everything.
“The good news we had is we won the turnover battle (2-1), but that turnover we had really was costly," Ferentz said. "We were driving the ball and had a good rhythm going.”
Wisconsin turned the recovery into a soul-crushing second quarter for the Hawkeyes. The Badgers went 4-for-4 on third downs in the frame and went on two touchdown marches — seven plays, 59 yards; then 13 plays, 76 yards.
Even though Iowa had a nice drive for a field goal in between, it was 14-6 Badgers at halftime.
You can’t take away the fumbled exchange but … imagine how the game's trajectory would have changed if Iowa could've even gotten one more first down and a field goal. The bobble ultimately forced Iowa to play from behind the rest of the game.
Tyrone Tracy Jr. gave the Hawkeyes some late life.
After not being targeted in the first half, Tracy and the Iowa offense started clicking after Wisconsin took a 21-6 lead with 2:16 left in the third quarter.
At that point, Stanley was 6-for-12 passing for 40 yards. The rest of the way, he went 11-for-16 for 168 yards. Going tempo seemed to help.
“He was feeling it. Everybody was. If you were on the sideline, you felt the energy going up," Tracy said.
Then with Iowa trailing 24-16, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called a deep shot. Tracy beat his man on a post, and Stanley hit him in stride. Tracy's speed took over from there for a 75-yard score with 3:12 to play. But the ensuing two-point try would be Iowa's last offensive snap.
“We were hoping for one more possession," said Tracy, who finished with five catches for 130 yards. "We were rolling at that point. We knew what they were going to be in. The play-calling was good. But it is what it is.”
Getting six points has been like pulling teeth all season, as you all know.
Getting three has been all too common, as you also know.
Nonetheless, junior walk-on Keith Duncan has been quite the story. The nation's leader in field goals is now Iowa's single-season record-holder. His 39-yarder in the fourth quarter was his 22nd of the season on 25 attempts — moving him past the 21 successfully booted by Nate Kaeding (in his 2002 Lou Groza Award season), Kyle Schlicher (in 2004) and Rob Houghtlin (in 1987).
Maybe equally as impressive, Duncan is 10-for-11 on field goals in road games (including 3-for-3 Saturday and a clutch 4-for-4 outing at Iowa State). That's what you want out of your kicker.
And just think, he’s got four more games to go, counting the bowl. He could get to 30.
Iowa tried a 4-4-3 look against Wisconsin’s heavier personnel groups.
With the extra week of preparation, it was clear that Iowa’s defensive coaches put thought into a new plan of defensive attack against their West Division nemesis. Iowa rolled out four linebackers — instead of its usual two or three — with Dillon Doyle, Jack Campbell, Nick Niemann and Barrington Wade manning the field.
“It’s just getting a guy closer to the line of scrimmage," Doyle explained. "It’s like playing a down safety, so that we can play our gaps a little heavier.”
The idea was that Niemann (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) would give Iowa more girth against the run than free safety Jack Koerner (6-0, 204). Give Iowa credit for trying to change something.
But it didn't work.
“Obviously, it wasn’t good enough," Ferentz said, summing up the day. “We just weren’t quite up to the task today.”
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.