Iowa gives Wisconsin quarterback one opportunity too many, and pays the price
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Another September night game at Kinnick Stadium. Another experienced opposing quarterback given one opportunity too many.
Saturday’s 28-17 Iowa last-minute loss to Wisconsin felt similar to last year’s final-play dagger by Penn State.
Both were in the opening game of Big Ten Conference play, with the Hawkeyes looking to make a big statement before a fired-up home crowd.
And in both instances, a Hawkeyes defense that had done a good job of bending without breaking couldn’t get the final stop it needed to pull off an upset and remain undefeated on the season.
Iowa did well Saturday in keeping Wisconsin star running back Jonathan Taylor in check. The nation’s second-leading rusher piled up 113 yards on the ground but needed 25 carries to get them. That was a 4.5-yard average that a defense can live with.
"I thought we were playing hard and getting guys to the ball, so that's just a positive thing to come off the field feeling like that," Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson said.
The No. 16 Badgers (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) had a first-quarter drive that consumed 95 yards, in which senior quarterback Alex Hornibrook hurt the Hawkeyes twice with play-action passes to receivers left open because the hosts were so intent on stopping the run.
After that? Wisconsin’s longest drive before the dagger touchdown consumed 46 yards. Its other score had come when a gaffe in the punt-return game gave Wisconsin the ball at the Iowa 10-yard line.
The Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1) did a terrific job of overcoming that with a 75-yard scoring drive to grab a 17-14 lead that sent the sellout crowd into pandemonium. For the final time, as it turned out.
Wisconsin got the ball twice after that and moved into Iowa territory before punting.
The third time, the Badgers were backed up to their 12-yard line with 5:40 remaining. This time, Hornibrook got them moving and didn’t stop.
"We had some lapses and credit to them, they made some plays," Nelson said.
Hornibrook completed all five of his passes, including a 28-yarder to Kendric Pryor to get to the Hawkeye 42-yard line. The stadium got quiet then.
At this time a year ago, it was Penn State’s Trace McSorley guiding a team downfield by making big play after big play to pull out a 21-19 win.
Hornibrook matched him against an Iowa defense that looked overmatched for the first time this season.
A third-and-5 completion to Garrett Groshek was ruled by officials to have picked up exactly five yards. The play was not reviewed. The Badgers moved on.
"The guy on our sideline said they were reviewing it," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "You can take a timeout to make yourself feel better and I did that once — I don't know, last year or maybe earlier this year — but basically you're wasting a timeout. They're reviewing all those things. And spots are always a little tough. We don't always agree with them, but like to think they're doing it right."
Hornibrook hooked up with tight end Jake Ferguson for 12 yards to the Iowa 17. His next pass was to A.J. Taylor for 17 yards in the end zone, behind falling linebacker Nick Niemann with 57 seconds left. It was the opposite end zone, but the same sinking feeling as last September for the Hawkeye defense.
"When you play as hard as you can for 60 minutes, pour a lot into it, it hurts," Iowa safety Jake Gervase said.
"They just made critical plays when we couldn't make them. We knew coming in this was going to be the most talented offense we were going to face both in the run and the passing game. And we were excited for that challenge. But unfortunately, we didn't play the full 60. We didn't finish strong and that ended up costing us the game."
Wisconsin tacked on one more score after an Iowa turnover.
The Hawkeyes didn’t get enough pressure on Hornibrook throughout the game. And the senior, eventually, made them pay.
Nelson was credited with Iowa's lone sack, but that came on a screen pass on which Hornibrook was flagged for intentional grounding. After intercepting Hornibrook three times a year ago, the Hawkeyes forced no turnovers Saturday.
On the game-winning touchdown, Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa felt he had a shot at Hornibrook.
"I bull-rushed, the tackle fell down and he threw the ball right before I got there," Epenesa said.
That was the story of the fourth quarter for Iowa on Saturday. Again.