Leistikow's DVR Monday: The defensive side of Iowa's crucial loss to Wisconsin

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Iowa ended up being an eight-point underdog, give or take a half point, this past Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.

But even though the Hawkeyes exceeded expectations on the scoreboard, the 24-22 loss to Wisconsin felt far more deflating than earlier-season, one-score losses to Michigan and Penn State.

The finality of the Big Ten West Division title no longer being realistic was a big part of that.

But another part of it was seeing the same, old issues crop up in another crucial game, coupled with a brand-new, uncharacteristic issue: poor tackling in the run game.

This week’s DVR Monday begins with the deficiencies on the defensive side of the football — and what might’ve caused them.

Barrington Wade, left, was part of Iowa's 4-4-3 alignment that tried to stop Wisconsin and Danny Davis (6).

Before we begin, Wisconsin’s blockers deserve credit.

The Badgers’ offensive line and tight end expertly cleared out Iowa linebackers, whereas the flip side wasn’t true — Wisconsin linebackers frequently crashed into Iowa’s backfield. And, as a result, Jonathan Taylor rushed 31 times for 250 yards — a staggering 8.1 yards per carry against what was supposed to be one of the nation’s top defenses.

But I have to imagine defensive coordinator Phil Parker wasn’t too thrilled with what he saw from Iowa’s tacklers, not just against Taylor.

I could write 1,000 words itemizing the lackluster tackling in this game. But here are two examples that stood out:

Second quarter, first-and-10 from Wisconsin’s 35: In a 7-6 game, Badgers quarterback Jack Coan found Garrett Groshek over the middle for a short completion. He caught the ball at the 37, and middle linebacker Dillon Doyle and free safety Jack Koerner were lurking, unblocked, at the 44. Groshek, hardly a burner, ran between the two — with Koerner ineffectively trying to grab the 220-pounder around the waist — and got all the way to the 46 for an 11-yard gain.

A way-too-easy first down. Nine plays later, Wisconsin barged into the end zone for a 14-6 halftime lead.

Fourth quarter, first-and-15 from Iowa’s 44: Down 21-16, even after a 36-yard Taylor run, Iowa was now primed to make a stop with more than 8 minutes left. Taking a straight-ahead handoff, Taylor was met by Iowa strong safety Geno Stone 1 yard past the line of scrimmage. But again, a too-high pad level (and the running back’s strength) helped Taylor drag Stone for a 7-yard gain.

Imagine if the next play was second-and-14 instead of second-and-8? Wisconsin would go on to churn out two more first downs and five more minutes of clock, and wound up scoring three crucial points.

Absolutely, the Hawkeyes were worn down as Wisconsin racked up 300 rushing yards. But they sorely missed the physical presence of starting middle linebacker Kristian Welch. Hopefully, for Iowa’s sake, the senior is ready to go against Minnesota after missing the last 3½ games with a stinger.

How did the new 4-4-3 wrinkle fare?

Parker deserves credit for trying to combat Wisconsin’s offense with a variety of personnel packages, the 4-4-3 — four down linemen, four linebackers (Doyle, Jack Campbell, Barrington Wade and Nick Niemann) and three defensive backs (no Koerner) — being a new development.

The 4-4-3: Even though that grouping was only out there for eight official snaps for 48 yards, it seemed the concept was sound. But the players were probably too inexperienced to handle more trust. That was apparent on a 13-yard run by Taylor on third-and-2 that set up Wisconsin’s second touchdown. Even though Wisconsin had a power-left formation (with two tight ends on that side), Iowa’s defense didn’t read what was happening — and had nobody in place to set the edge. Taylor ran left, and Doyle was easily absorbed by freshman tight end Cormac Sampson.

The 4-3: Iowa’s base defense was good except for one play against the pass (2-for-6, 55 yards) but terrible against the run — allowing 192 yards on 22 carries. A lot of the poor tackling occurred with the 4-3, for what it's worth.

The 4-2-5: When Iowa matched Wisconsin’s three-wide sets, Paul Chryst was still determined to run the football. The Badgers called 16 runs against Iowa’s 4-2-5 (which puts Dane Belton at the cash spot, in place of Niemann) for 78 yards, compared with 17 passes to gain 98 yards. Iowa created both turnovers with this 4-2-5, which probably made this its most effective personnel group.

Rarely does DVR Monday delve into the guys in stripes, but officiating was part of the story.

First, let’s look at ball-spotting that consistently favored Wisconsin. Then, the fateful (failed) two-point conversion run by Nate Stanley.

In a two-point game, every yard matters. And while it’d be a stretch to say any of these changed the game, they are infuriating to watch as a football observer who craves consistency.

There was one seemingly egregious marking, when Michael Ojemudia tackled Quintez Cephus for what looked like a 3- or 4-yard gain on third-and-5 in the second quarter. Officials gave him a generous six yards and a key first down that led to a long touchdown drive.

Here's what happened: Cephus jumped and caught the ball around the 35-yard line, but his feet landed at the 33, where Ojemudia took him down at the 30 (well short of the first-down marker at the 34). Forward progress is always subjective, but in this case, the linesman that marked the ball was five yards behind the play.

That said, the NCAA rule book does seem to give Cephus the benefit of the doubt:

"When an airborne pass receiver of either team completes a catch inbounds after an opponent has driven him backward and the ball is declared dead at the spot of the catch, the forward progress is where the player received the ball."

OK, fine.

Then why did Iowa get short-changed when Nico Ragaini caught a third-and-10 pass for 11 yards (but was marked for 9½, forcing a fourth-and-1 call)? Why was Ihmir Smith-Marsette ruled down at the Wisconsin 24 when he caught a ball at the 22½ before behind shoved back?

There were at least two other spots that cost Iowa a full yard:

Tyler Goodson’s long run ended with his knee hitting at the Wisconsin 28 (and the ball was still in front of him), but the next play started at the 29.

Then on a second-and-goal from Wisconsin’s 3 early in the fourth quarter (which was officially the 2), Toren Young plunged ahead to at least the 2 — and was driven back. Yet the ball was marked at the 3 and ruled a 1-yard loss. Stanley hit Ragaini for a touchdown on the next play, but still, these rulings are head-scratching.

Now about the final two-point conversion.

In our postgame podcast, I said I thought this was a good play call, as Iowa tried to know the score at 24 after Tyrone Tracy Jr.’s 75-yard touchdown. The play was there. But Stanley’s designed run up the middle was stopped inside the 1-yard line because linebacker Chris Orr and safety Eric Burrell got a free run at the quarterback when running back Mekhi Sargent’s path to blocking them was obstructed by the umpire.

To make matters worse, the umpire — as he tried to dodge traffic — missed nose tackle Keeanu Benton grabbing center Tyler Linderbaum’s face mask. (That's a penalty).

Good play call, bad luck for the Hawkeyes.

And, as we saw on the ensuing Wisconsin drive, Taylor was more than capable of slicing through Iowa’s defense for a winning field goal anyway.

This game was a reminder that Stanley is much better when he doesn’t face pressure.

Once Iowa’s quarterback started getting ample protection, he was flinging the ball with confidence. But before that, he experienced at least three moments he’d love to have back.

First quarter, third-and-goal from Wisconsin’s 6: The Badgers rushed six. Tracy broke open across the middle (he had two steps on his defender), but frazzled by pressure, Stanley elected to throw the football out of the end zone. It could have been an easy early touchdown. Instead, Keith Duncan padded his field-goal total.

Third quarter, third-and-5 from Wisconsin’s 40: Iowa’s rare use of the read option has worked in big ways, and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz went back to it here. But Stanley kept the ball for a mere 3-yard pickup. Had he handed the ball to jet-sweeping Goodson, the fleet back might have gone for 15 or 20 yards ... or more. There was a lot of green turf and tight end Shaun Beyer in front of Goodson. Iowa punted on fourth-and-2.

Third quarter, second-and-10 from Iowa’s 39: After a second straight Iowa defensive stop, Stanley this time made the right read. Slot receiver Max Cooper was given a 12-yard cushion by the safety. But Stanley’s quick screen pass wobbled behind Cooper, who had to make an awkward catch and lost three yards. It should’ve been an easy 8-yard gain. Iowa punted again … and four plays later, Wisconsin scored to take a 21-6 lead.

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.