Leistikow's thoughts: Big-play Hawkeyes too much for Wisconsin to handle

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — We’ve heard for weeks that the deep balls would come for Spencer Petras and the Iowa passing game. On Saturday, they arrived — and not a moment too soon.

In what was mostly a small-ball punt-fest at Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeyes clubbed a flurry of second-half home runs to help end a decade of Wisconsin dominance.

Petras hit Ihmir Smith-Marsette for a pair of third-quarter touchdowns — including a career-long 53-yard completion — and the Hawkeyes capped their regular season on a six-game win streak and in possession of the Heartland Trophy for the first time since 2015.

For good measure, Tyler Goodson busted an 80-yard touchdown run with 4 minutes, 9 seconds to go, a streaking reminder that Iowa had the playmakers in this matchup.

Iowa 28, Wisconsin 7.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette camps under a 53-yard touchdown pass from Spencer Petras to give Iowa a 21-7 lead.

The Hawkeyes (6-2) came out of the halftime locker room no longer content to try chipping away at Wisconsin’s No. 1-ranked national defense. Iowa’s first play from scrimmage was a 14-yard strike from Petras to Brandon Smith. Next was a 38-yard ball from Petras to Smith-Marsette. Yes, it was underthrown … but it was complete, and Smith-Marsette — who has repeatedly shown frustration with the lack of deep-ball completions this season — rejoiced at the result. That was Petras' first deep-ball completion of the season, and another was to come.

“It’s something we’ve been hitting all year in practice," Petras said. "We knew it was a matter of time before it showed up during the game. … Really good to see that finally pay off.”

Petras said that 38-yarder should've been a touchdown, but that connection seemed to get him humming. His next two completions went for touchdowns, including a 19-yard beauty into the south end zone to Smith-Marsette on third-and-10 that gave Iowa a 14-0 lead.

And then, after the Badgers cut Iowa’s lead in half, Petras delivered his best throw of the season: a play-action deep shot to Smith-Marsette, who had broken behind the Badgers' secondary. Petras calmly stepped up in the pocket and launched a pass with touch, and Smith-Marsette caught the ball and front-flipped upon reaching the end zone. The Hawkeyes had a 21-7 lead and were in control.

"If you want to play man coverage against Ihmir," Petras said, "you’re going to get burned.”

Smith-Marsette’s career-best 140 receiving yards on seven catches came at a price. He left the game after injuring his left ankle on the celebration and later returned to the sideline wearing a sweatshirt and a boot.

But he’ll always remember this game, the day he and the Hawkeyes got over the Wisconsin hump.

"Do I regret the flip? No. Would I do it again? Yeah. I’m just happy we got the win," Smith-Marsette said. "Everyone was having fun. My senior year, never going to play in Kinnick again … got to go out with a bang.”

Iowa finished the game with 338 yards, 171 of them on three plays, against the nation's top-ranked defense. Petras finished 14-for-25 for 211 yards. His four second-half completions averaged 31 yards.

And Iowa's defense locked down the Badgers to 225 yards and forced two turnovers.

"You don't know that there's a next game," said defensive end Chauncey Golston, who finished with a team-high nine tackles. "So finishing strong is the best you can do.

"I'm ecstatic. I'm really happy."

COLUMN: Like in 2004, stingy defense ends season with celebratory touch

Punt-game mistakes by Iowa were ominous reminders of past Wisconsin wins at Kinnick.

The Hawkeyes’ defense had gotten a third-quarter stop, and Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst seemingly opted for an ultra-conservative punt on fourth-and-inches from his own 34½-yard line. But the wobbly boot paid off, as Iowa return man Charlie Jones tried to collect the bouncing ball. However, he did so between two Badgers defenders and never got a clean hold of it, fumbling the ball away at Iowa’s 25-yard line.

Three plays later, Wisconsin was in the end zone on Nakia Watson’s 1-yard touchdown run.

Instead of a 14-0 lead and the ball with 6½ minutes left in the third quarter, Iowa suddenly was in a seven-point game with tons of clock remaining.

Jones has full trust from Ferentz as a returner, and he has grabbed many bouncing balls this year and rarely takes a fair catch. But this one was ill-advised. Jones needs to understand time, score and situation … and be OK giving up another 5 yards of field position.

"What I said to Charlie was, 'Let's play on,'" Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "... one of the reasons we won the (Michigan State) game after losing two is because of Charlie. I admire his attitude, his mental toughness out there, physical toughness. He's a competitive, good football player."

The mistake brought a vivid reminder of the 2018 game, when Iowa held a 10-7 third-quarter lead against the Badgers when a bouncing punt went off the leg of blocking Hawkeye Shaun Beyer and was recovered by Wisconsin. The turnover turned into seven points. The Badgers went on to win, 28-17.

And of course, there was the infamous fake punt on fourth-and-10 from the Badgers in the 2010 classic, a fourth-quarter maneuver that delivered a 31-30 Wisconsin win and began a decade of red-and-white dominance.

To add to the special teams' bizarre day, Tory Taylor was penalized for an illegal kick after dropping a punt snap in the fourth quarter ... then kicking it (quite effectively) off the ground. But that's not allowed. The illegal kick was the correct call.

Per the rule book, "a legal kick is a punt, drop kick or place kick ... before a change of team possession. Kicking the ball in any other manner is illegal." The events gave Wisconsin the ball first-and-goal at Iowa's 5 in a 21-7 game, with 6:02 to go.

"I guess that's what guys from Australia do when they see the ball on the ground," Ferentz said. "We're trying to figure out how he got the ball that far downfield with all those bodies. Strange play, even a stranger enforcement of the penalty. That was painful."

Thankfully for Iowa, linebacker Jack Campbell turned back the Badgers with a fourth-down interception in the end zone, and Goodson busted his big gainer right after that.

The final scrimmage play of a first-half rock fight was big for Iowa.

After an offensive pass-interference call on Tyrone Tracy Jr. pushed the Hawkeyes back 15 yards in the waning moments of the first half, they faced a second-and-25 from Wisconsin’s 47. A dump-off screen pass to Goodson to the left was nicely set up, and the running back finally had some room to run. He gained 20 yards, the longest play for either team in a first half that saw 13 punts and no touchdowns.

But every precious blade of fake grass he gained proved critical. Keith Duncan was set up for a 45-yard field goal attempt with 7 seconds left in the half. As the fifth-year senior's boot from the left hash sailed toward the north uprights, Wisconsin players were waving their arms as if to say “no good.” But Duncan’s ball curled just enough to clip the right upright and bounce to the left … and over the cross bar, for his school-record 20th career make from 40-plus yards. (He previously shared the mark with Nate Kaeding.)

“It was a big momentum play. It was a great job all around on that play," Petras said. "It starts with the offensive line getting us going … and Tyler Goodson, playmaker, had a great little run.”

The three-pointer gave the Hawkeyes a feeling of momentum entering the halftime locker room. They had a 6-0 lead, when a few minutes earlier it looked like Wisconsin might be marching to a 7-3 advantage. A punt exchange gave the Badgers the ball at Iowa’s 40-yard line with 2:29 left. Then on a fourth-and-1 from the 31, Wisconsin went into its version of the Wildcat formation. Running back Garrett Groshek took the direct snap and was turned back by Campbell for a 6-yard loss, with 82 seconds left in the first half. That gave Iowa the ball at its own 37, and it turned the turnover on downs into three big points.

We should learn the identity of Iowa’s next opponent by Sunday.

That was the message from both Wisconsin and Iowa athletic directors Barry Alvarez and Gary Barta regarding the Big Ten Conference’s “Champions Week” matchups.

Alvarez has said that Wisconsin wants to use the ninth week of Big Ten games to reschedule its rivalry game against Minnesota, and that seems likely to occur. And with Northwestern facing Ohio State in the Dec. 19 Big Ten title game, Iowa’s most likely opponents would be Michigan and Indiana (in that order).

Two things would stand in the way of a possible meeting of Iowa (No. 16 in the College Football Playoff ratings) and 6-1 Indiana (No. 12). One, the Hoosiers had rising COVID-19 cases that contributed to the cancellation of Saturday’s game against Purdue. Secondly, they (and the Big Ten) might prefer to reschedule that battle for the Old Oaken Bucket. However, if Purdue can’t play next week and Indiana can, then maybe Iowa-Indiana happens, after all. In that case, it would make sense to have the contest in Bloomington, considering the Hoosiers have had only three home games.

Iowa is prepared to host a Champions Week game at Kinnick Stadium but was waiting to hear (like the rest of us) from the Big Ten on whether that would happen. The Hawkeyes lost to Michigan 10-3 last year in Ann Arbor. A rematch, even with Michigan being 2-4, would be one of the marquee Champions Week matchups for the conference and could be played Friday night.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.