Leistikow's 5 thoughts after Iowa's 27-7 loss to Wisconsin: Another disastrous performance on Brian Ferentz's watch

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

MADISON, Wis. — The bar on offense was set extremely low in 2017, when an Iowa football team riding high off a 31-point pounding of Ohio State came to Madison … and gained 66 total yards.

Four years later, not much has changed in the Iowa-Wisconsin rivalry. Except Brian Ferentz was in his first year as offensive coordinator then. And this is Year 5.

Also, that was a terrific 2017 Wisconsin team, one that went 13-1. This was a slightly above-average Wisconsin team that entered 4-3. And Iowa was dominated, with its offensive ineptitude showing up in glaring ways in a 27-7 loss before 74,209 fans at Camp Randall Stadium.

No. 10 Iowa (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten) did clear the 2017 bar in yardage, but not with the eye test. This was U-G-L-Y.

Iowa gained 156 yards for the game on 55 plays, but had just 17 yards at halftime. It rushed 30 times for 24 yards. The quarterbacks were sacked six times.

“We struggled offensively today. That was pretty obvious," head coach Kirk Ferentz said. "They’ve got an aggressive, veteran defensive football team. When that goes on (and) turning the ball over, you can’t expect to win.”

What a fast fall from euphoria. Iowa was No. 2 in the country after a 23-20 win against Penn State on Oct. 9. Brian Ferentz’s play call to deliver a 43-yard touchdown pass from Petras to Nico Ragaini in the fourth quarter of a top-five showdown was deservedly hailed.

This was the first of three second-quarter turnovers by Iowa, a fumble by Spencer Petras.

But three weeks later, the offense seems beyond broken after back-to-back losses in which yardage has been so painful to acquire.

Everything is a problem: Offensive line. Quarterback. Scheme. Play-calling. That ultimately comes down to the offensive coaches and, yes, Kirk Ferentz — whose career and legacy has been built on strong offensive-line play.

Let’s start there. What an indictment on a program that touts itself as an offensive line factory to still have so many unsolved issues up front through eight games. Outside of all-American center Tyler Linderbaum, the blocking has been helpless most of the season. A week off didn't result in any up-front upgrades.

Iowa did minor bye-week tinkering on its offensive line, giving Jack Plumb his first start of the season at right tackle in place of Nick DeJong. The Hawkeyes’ right-tackle spot has been a problem all year and it was again Saturday, with Plumb and DeJong (who rotated in and gave up a turnstile sack-fumble in the second quarter) ineffective.

Is first-year offensive line coach George Barnett in over his head? Is it on the Iowa staff to not have better tackles ready? Kirk Ferentz said multiple times over the past few weeks that he had seen progress up front and was confident things would be fine.

Not sure what he’s seeing in practice, but it’s not showing up on Saturdays.

"You continue to learn more about your players as the season goes on — what they can do, what they can’t do. And we’ve got to figure out a better way to plan, to give them a better chance," Kirk Ferentz said. "I don’t think there’s any one specific reason right now. We’re just not executing well enough to get the job done.”

Quarterback Spencer Petras struggled. No, it wasn’t all his fault. Upon entering midway through the fourth quarter, backup Alex Padilla didn't operate any better behind an offensive line that repeatedly allowed interior pressure.

Still, Petras’ lack of mobility hurt the Hawkeyes, and his numbers were brutal: Just 6-for-14 through three quarters for 48 yards with a lost fumble. He finished the day 9-for-19 for 93 yards and appeared to tweak his right shoulder on a late scramble-and-throw attempt. He said he would be fine, health-wise, going forward. The offense, though, is a different story.

“We’re not inventing any (new) plays," Petras said. "It’s just about executing better, and we didn’t execute well enough today.”

I can’t remember two worse back-to-back performances by an Iowa offense … since maybe the black-eye 2012 season.

Seven points against Purdue on Oct. 16; seven points 14 days later.

Even when the offense was put into advantageous positions and the Hawkeyes had momentum, the play-calling failed miserably.

Let’s set the stage.

Iowa had chipped away to cut Wisconsin’s lead to 20-7 — gaining three first downs on a short-field touchdown drive (six plays, 40 yards) after having just one first down through eight possessions. Finally, something to build on. Then, the defense produced a three-and-out and got Iowa the ball back at its own 36-yard line, with 7:26 left in the third quarter.

After picking up a first down and having third-and-2 from Wisconsin’s 41, Iowa tried a fullback dive to Monte Pottebaum. It gained only 1 yard. After taking a timeout, what imaginative call did Brian Ferentz dig up from his bag? Another fullback dive. It was stopped a few inches short by great linebacker Leo Chenal, and Wisconsin turned that turnover-on-downs into seven points.

“Needless to say, we thought it was the best call," Kirk Ferentz said, citing previous success on the dive earlier this season.

It’s hard to believe the best play call in Iowa’s pocket on fourth-and-1 is a fullback dive. But it epitomized the day of limited creativity and, ultimately, limited yardage in another Wisconsin loss.

“Our guys were fighting. We had a chance to win the football game or at least get right back in in," Kirk Ferentz said. "But right after the play … it was pretty much over at that point.”

Recap:Wisconsin dismantles No. 10 Iowa, 27-7, as Hawkeyes offense struggles against Badgers

Iowa was plus-15 in turnovers in its 6-0 start. My how things have changed.

We know that turnover margin is critical to Iowa’s victory formula every week. And while it wasn’t the direct cause of this loss, miscues put Phil Parker’s defense into consistent no-win situations.

The Hawkeyes fumbled three times in the second quarter, all inside their own red zone. Combined, the three turnovers led to 10 points. Combined, the fumbling players have 14 years of program experience.

Fumble No. 1: At the 10:49 mark, Petras dropped back to pass on a third-and-long and had the ball batted out of his hand by Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig as DeJong whiffed on his pass protection, and Keeanu Benton recovered at the Hawkeye 8.

Fumble No. 2: After a goal-line stand, Iowa had a little momentum and hope. But on the second play from its own 2, Ivory Kelly-Martin couldn’t hang on to the handoff and Wisconsin’s Noah Burks recovered at the Iowa 1. It was probably the last straw for Kelly-Martin, a fifth-year senior who was plagued by fumbling issues early in the season. That was Kelly-Martin’s only carry (he was replaced by Gavin Williams) and a dagger, as Wisconsin scored one play later to make it 17-0.

"Ivory said he didn’t feel me put the ball in there," Petras said. "I don’t really know what happened. Kind of a weird play that was fitting for that second quarter.”

Fumble No. 3: Charlie Jones got poked in the eye on a kickoff return, a brief injury that put fifth-year senior Max Cooper in as a punt returner for the first time in 2021. After the Hawkeyes got a stop, up 17-0, Cooper had Andy Vujnovich’s punt carom between the 1 and 9 on his jersey — and directly into the mitts of Badger special-teamer Travian Blaylock at Iowa’s 18. The Hawkeye defense held and got out of the first half down, 20-0. (Jones would later return.)

Iowa's went minus-3 in turnovers in the 24-7 loss to Purdue on Oct. 16 and finished minus-3 Saturday. 

Jack Campbell made the play of the game for Iowa’s defense.

Too bad it went to waste.

With Wisconsin leading, 10-0, after Petras’ lost sack-fumble set up the Badgers in a golden spot. After getting inside Iowa’s 1 for a fourth-and-goal, Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst decided to go for the touchdown. A fullback dive to John Chenal just needed about 24 inches, but he probably only got 18 — thanks to Campbell jumping into the 256-pound Chenal’s flight path and knocking him backward and downward.

It was an impressive effort that (briefly) saved seven points.

“Before we went out there, (defensive coordinator Phil) Parker told us how big it would be if we could go out and get the ball back to the offense," Iowa defensive tackle Noah Shannon said. "Thankfully, that’s what we were able to do."

The stop reminded me of Iowa’s fumble-touchback against Purdue two weeks ago — a play that gave the offense some second life to make good on failures and get the Hawkeyes back in the game. Unfortunately, just like that game (when Petras took two sacks in back-to-back plays), the offense only made things worse for the defense with Kelly-Martin's fumble.

This time, a quarterback sneak from Graham Mertz made it 17-0 … and the course of the game had been pretty much settled.

If you expected tweaks on defense, you got one … but not a good surprise.

Terry Roberts, who had been filling in for Riley Moss at one of Iowa’s cornerback spots, did not play Saturday after suffering a mid-week injury. Kirk Ferentz called it a deep bruise and said he hoped Roberts could return for next week’s game at Northwestern.

“That hurts us on special teams, too,” said Ferentz, who added he would know more on Tuesday after Moss' status, too.

In Roberts’ place, sophomore Jermari Harris made his first career start. Mertz went after Harris on his first three pass attempts. Free safety Jack Koerner said the mid-week injury was a hit to continuity but the team had confidence in Harris, Iowa’s No. 4 cornerback. (Of note: True freshman Cooper DeJean and UNI transfer Xavior Williams were Iowa’s backup cornerbacks Saturday.)

"Jermari, he was thrown into the fire. I know what that feels like. He did a great job preparing," Koerner said. "... I just spoke to him after the game. His best football is in front of him. He didn't play his best game. I didn't play my best game. Nobody on defense or offense or special teams played their best game today.

"It's a team loss."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.