No. 18 Iowa 28, No. 25 Wisconsin 7: Here's what we learned
IOWA CITY, Ia. — A blustery snow started coating the turf of Kinnick Stadium in the fourth quarter Saturday.
The Hawkeyes took the opportunity to frolic in it. And why not?
Iowa's defense put the clamps on Wisconsin throughout the mid-December afternoon. The offense produced some big plays in the second half, at last. Even a pair of rare special-teams miscues couldn't derail the Hawkeyes, who routed the Badgers 28-7 to earn the Heartland Trophy for the first time since 2015.
Keith Duncan kicked two field goals. Spencer Petras connected with Ihmir Smith-Marsette for two touchdown passes, the latter of which Smith-Marsette celebrated a bit too heartily with a flip into the end zone that left him with an ankle injury. And Tyler Goodson punctuated it all with an 80-yard dash through the snowflakes that left no doubt about who the better team was.
"I think all running backs expect to break a long run," Goodson said of his career-long jaunt.
"It was all for us to keep going, keep pounding and then once we break their will, we break one."
No. 18 Iowa (6-2) has won its past six games, extending streaks against rivals Minnesota and Nebraska in the process. But also snapping losing streaks to Penn State and No. 25 Wisconsin (2-3).
In a season delayed by, and then often disrupted by, the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hawkeyes made it to the finish line by playing all eight scheduled games, and their best football at the end.
That was cause for celebration for the Hawkeyes, several of whom ran onto the field and made snow angels when the clock hit zero.
"That was the first time I've ever done a snow angel or played in a snow game," said sophomore safety Dane Belton, a Florida native. "It was incredibly fun."
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, as he frequently does, shed some tears in the postgame locker room after getting the Heartland Trophy back.
"He just loves it for us and he loves it for the program," Belton said of Ferentz.
Here's what we learned:
One mistake can open the door
Wisconsin hadn't driven for a touchdown in 33 possessions before Iowa handed the Badgers a short field. Hawkeye punt returner Charlie Jones had been excellent all season, but he made a key mistake in the third quarter with his team ahead 14-0 and about to get the ball back thanks to a conservative decision by Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst. He sent out his punt unit on fourth-and-inches from his 35-yard line.
Jones originally seemed intent to let the punt bounce and be downed by the Badgers, but then took an unnecessary gamble when the football angled his way, trying to grab it and get some yardage. Instead, two defenders converged on him and knocked the ball loose for the lone Iowa turnover of the game. The Badgers had to cover just 25 yards to get a touchdown, and did so in three plays to cut the lead to 14-7.
In the fourth quarter, Iowa punter Tory Taylor, who also has had a terrific season, dropped a snap, then tried to dropkick the ball off the ground. But the ball is considered dead as soon as it is on the turf in that situation, so the kick was illegal and gave Wisconsin the football at the Iowa 5-yard line. This time, the defense came to the rescue, with a Jack Campbell interception in the end zone on fourth-and-goal. So it all ended up working out for the Hawkeyes, but those two plays were a reminder that, especially in this series, the team ahead on the scoreboard can't afford to take any undue risks.
Which quarterback was worse in the first half?
The Hawkeyes and Badgers are both debuting new starting quarterbacks this season, and neither was up to par in the first half. Statistically, Iowa’s Spencer Petras outperformed Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz. But that certainly didn’t quiet those who wonder if Petras is really the long-term answer for the Hawkeyes.
He completed 10 of 17 passes for 87 yards, 20 of them coming on a screen pass to running back Tyler Goodson. In the worst moment, Petras stepped back on a third-and-1 and didn’t find any receiver immediately open. But rather than try to buy himself some time to pick up a first down, potentially by running the ball, he simply heaved it to his own sideline and was flagged for intentional grounding.
But Mertz, a redshirt freshman who overcame COVID-19 this fall, was even less successful. He was 6 of 14 for 31 yards and flirted with interceptions repeatedly, including a high pass to Watson that was deflected and snared by Hawkeye safety Kaevon Merriweather. But the replay showed the football nicked the turf just before Merriweather secured possession. Both quarterbacks were much sharper in the second half, particularly Petras, as the teams opened up the offenses.
"We've just got to keep chopping away and good things will happen, make good decisions, and that's what we did this week," Petras said.
His 53-yard touchdown to Smith-Marsette was a career-long toss.
"I almost passed out on the sideline, I was yelling so much," Petras said.
Hawkeye linebackers with biggest plays
With both offenses bogged down, it was up to Iowa’s defense to come up with the two most consequential plays of the first half, both of which led to Keith Duncan field goals. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker surprised many when he proclaimed in the preseason that his linebackers were his strength. But it has played out that way.
First, senior Nick Niemann maneuvered through a maze of players to find the football when Mertz and running back Nakia Watson botched an exchange. That gave Iowa the ball at the Wisconsin 32-yard line. Duncan converted from 30 yards shortly afterward for a 3-0 first-quarter lead.
Next, Iowa middle linebacker Jack Campbell, a first-year starter, showed excellent recognition and a quick closing burst to blow up a Badgers’ attempt on fourth-and-1 from the Iowa 31-yard line in the second quarter. Campbell forced Wisconsin running back Garrett Groshek to backpedal and try a desperation pass that was ruled to have occurred after his forward progress was stopped. The result was a six-yard loss, instead of a potential attempt at a game-tying field goal for Wisconsin.
The Iowa offense then drove just far enough to get a 45-yard Duncan field goal before halftime and a 6-0 lead. Campbell also broke up three passes and intercepted another in the end zone to snuff out a Wisconsin scoring opportunity.
Iowa now waits to hear its “Champions Week” matchup for next Friday or Saturday. Details on that game should be provided Sunday.
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at email@example.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.