Instant analysis: Bad to worse for Iowa football following crushing loss to Wisconsin Badgers

In the biggest game of the season, things went from bad to worse for Iowa football.

Two weeks after their 24-7 home loss to Purdue, the Hawkeyes went on the road and fell to rival Wisconsin 27-7.

In a game reminiscent of the Hawkeyes' 2017 trip to Madison (when they managed only 66 yards of offense), Iowa had 156 total yards, 24 rushing yards, three turnovers and 10 first downs.

It’s been a steep decline for a team that three weeks ago was ranked No. 2 in the country. With their second consecutive Big Ten West loss, the Hawkeyes are a long shot for the Big Ten championship game.

Iowa's Charlie Jones returned the game’s opening kickoff to the Iowa 45-yard line and set up the offense with favorable field position. The next sequence of plays went as followed: sack, short run, incomplete for the first of what was five consecutive three-and-outs.

On the other side, Wisconsin's offense found a rhythm early. The Badgers converted a handful of first downs on their first drive before punching in a touchdown on their second drive. The most surprising aspect of their early success was the play of quarterback Grhaham Mertz, who attempted only eight passes in last week's game. By the 3:08 mark in the first quarter, Mertz already completed 7-of-8 passes for 68 yards and a touchdown. 

The Hawkeye defense was without Terry Roberts, who suffered an undisclosed injury during the week, and Riley Moss, who missed his second consecutive game with a leg injury. Still, the Iowa defense did its best to keep the game close despite the Badgers frequently having good field position.

Three turnovers set up Wisconsin's offense inside the Iowa 10-yard line but the Badgers managed only 10 points. That stretch saw the Iowa defense stop Wisconsin on 4th and goal inside the 5-yard line.

The Badgers had averaged 293 rushing yards per game over the last three weeks, but Iowa held them to just 166 on Saturday — and only one second-half score. The story of the game was the Iowa offense's ineffectiveness. 

Much of this week's discourse surrounded Iowa's offense and if any wholesale changes were coming. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz stated during the bye week that he and his staff wouldn't re-invent the wheel. Saturday's performance confirmed that the Hawkeyes' offense isn't doing much differently. 

One small change was made: junior tackle Jack Plumb in place of Nick DeJong at right tackle. That did not change what we saw in the last outing against Purdue: Iowa's offensive line was overwhelmed again. 

Wisconsin followed up its six-sack performance last week with six more against Iowa. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras finished 9-of-19 for 93 yards and was unable to find a rhythm all day. The Hawkeyes were 2-of-12 on third down and 0-for-3 on fourth down.

There were also self-inflicted errors. Senior running back Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled a carry on Iowa's one-yard line that set up a Wisconsin touchdown. Two possessions later, senior Max Cooper muffed a punt that set up a Badgers field goal. 

Wisconsin's Chimere Dike (13) catches a pass as Iowa's Jermari Harris (27) and Jack Koerner, right, defend during the first half Saturday in Madison.

Iowa's offense found one bright spot in the third quarter: a 40-yard touchdown drive capped by a Petras quarterback sneak to cut the deficit to 20-7. On the next possession, Iowa failed to convert on 4th and short in Wisconsin territory. Wisconsin's next possession: an 11-play, 60-yard touchdown drive that ended the Iowa defense's under-25-points surrendered streak at 29 games. Those points closed the door on the game for good. 

In the biggest weekend of the college football season, with the initial college football playoff rankings looming on Tuesday, Iowa fell flat. The questions about whether the Hawkeyes could sustain that No. 2 ranking have been answered. Now the only question is how far Iowa will tumble in the national rankings.

There was optimism that the Purdue loss was a minor hiccup along the road to a great season, but Saturday's result showed major flaws. Despite having a bye week to prepare, the Hawkeyes looked lost against their rival on the road. 

The playoffs are out of the picture, and with the Big Ten West title in doubt, the question out of Madison is where do the Hawkeyes go from here? The road doesn't get any easier as they'll face Northwestern next Saturday in Evanston, Ill. 

Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com.