Brown: Third-down blues cost Iowa a victory

Rick Brown
Iowa's John Lowdermilk is stiff-armed by Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon during their Big Ten Conference game Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. Gordon finished with 200 rushing yards for the Badgers.

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Kinnick Stadium was pulsating, like it hadn't all season.

Iowa's second-half comeback, thanks to a downfield passing attack that had the nation's best defense on its heels and hanging on for dear life, had made an upset over No. 14 Wisconsin a very real possibility.

And when Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock's touchdown pass to Jake Duzey cut the deficit to 26-24 with 5 minutes and a single second left to play, all I could think about was this: Iowa 24, No. 3 Penn State 23, in 2008. The Hawkeyes stormed back in the fourth quarter of that one, too, costing Joe Paterno's team a shot at the national title.

On Saturday, Iowa's defense was one stop away from possibly giving placekicker Marshall Koehn a chance to duplicate Daniel Murray's last-second magic against the Nittany Lions.

That stop never happened. The Hawkeyes, a 10-point underdog, never saw the ball again. And the inability of Iowa's defense to get off the field on third down, an issue all afternoon, rose its ugly head one more time.

"It's no secret," Iowa linebacker Quinton Alston said. "It's very deflating. You work hard on first and second down to put them in the worst possible position on third down. And they're converting the third down and 13, third down and 12, third down and whatever the case may be."

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Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave's scramble for 12 yards on third and 10 from the Wisconsin 38 and the clock melting under 2 minutes was the ultimate kiss of death. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was pleased with his team's effort, but in no mood for that old sports axiom that says it doesn't matter if you win or lose but how you play the game.

"That's a bunch of crap," Ferentz said after his team fell to 7-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten.

But this loss was different. It was not a head-scratcher, like losses to Iowa State and Maryland. It was not like the humbling blowout the Hawkeyes suffered at Minnesota.

"We'll see a lot of good things on that tape," Ferentz said. "And some things that weren't good enough."

I would imagine getting off the field on third down would be high on that bad list.

Iowa trailed at halftime 16-3, then scored 21 points in the second half against a Wisconsin defense that came into the game third nationally in scoring defense at 15.3 yards a game. But the Hawkeyes couldn't get off the field on third down when it mattered most.

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"That was one of our goals, to get them off schedule and make them play a little left-handed," Ferentz said. "They rose up and did a great job of converting those."

Wisconsin's Melvin Gordon had 200 yards rushing, tying former Badger Ron Dayne's single-season Big Ten record of 2,109 yards. Eighty-eight of those came on one third-quarter run. After his 408-yard assault on Nebraska a week ago, an FBS record that lasted just one week, 200 yards seems downright human.

But Wisconsin is no one-trick pony. Backup quarterback Tanner McEvoy got loose for a 45-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. Stave's arm accounted for several key first downs. And Iowa's defense will be playing the what-if game for days to come. Wisconsin converted on seven of 13 first-down opportunities.

Leading 9-3, Wisconsin went on a 12-play, 73-yard drive that included three key moments: a Gordon fumble the Badgers recovered at the Wisconsin 36; a conversion on third-and-eight from the Iowa 37. And a conversion on and third-and-11 from the Iowa 26. Gordon's 6-yard touchdown run made it 16-3 at halftime.

And then things got interesting. Throw the ball downfield, a booster screamed at offensive coordinator Greg Davis as he headed for the press box elevator.

And then Iowa came out in the second half, threw the ball downfield and made a game of it against a defense that entered the game first nationally in total defense at 244 yards a game. The Hawkeyes rolled up 271 yards in the second half, and 412 for the game.

That's the most yards the Badgers have surrended all season. Rudock completed 10 of 16 second-half passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns. Wisconsin had been allowing 147.3 passing yards a game.

Gordon's brilliance on the field is unmistakable. Iowa did a solid job against him, and he still had 200 yards. But the vintage drive might have come after Iowa had closed to 19-17 and missed a two-point conversion for the tie with 11:10 remaining.

Wisconsin answered with a 75-yard touchdown drive, capped by Gordon's 23-yard run. Gordon accounted for 73 of those yards. And the key play? His 35-yard reception on a third-and-13 play from the Wisconsin 32.

Third-down blues, one near upset.

Hawkeye columnist Rick Brown is a 10-time Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Follow him on Twitter: @ByRickBrown.