IOWA CITY – Wisconsin’s defense performed at a level worthy of a championship team Saturday against Iowa.
The offense and special teams did not.
Those units, to be blunt, didn’t come close to playing well enough for UW to head home with a victory and a share of first place in the Big Ten West Division.
The result was a crushing 24-10 loss at Kinnick Stadium to an Iowa team that prevailed despite generating just 146 yards of offense on 68 plays.
“We put our defense in tough positions,” wide receiver Chimere Dike said. “We’ve got to get better.
“They played their heart out.”
The Badgers (5-5, 3-4) missed an opportunity to become bowl-eligible with two regular-season games remaining and saw their slim hope of winning the division diminished further.
UW also fell to 3-2 under interim head coach Jim Leonhard.
The Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3) won their third consecutive game this season and defeated UW for just the third time in the last 11 meetings.
“I want to give coach Ferentz and his team a lot of praise,” Leonhard said. “They out-played us today.”
How did the Hawkeyes win?
They drove 17 yards for their first touchdown after a blocked punt.
They got a 32-yard interception return for a touchdown by cornerback Cooper DeJean for a 14-3 lead.
They drove 18 yards for a touchdown and a 21-10 lead after DeJean ripped off a 41-yard punt return to the UW 18 early in the fourth quarter.
They drove 27 yards on 11 plays for a field goal after UW turned the ball over on downs at the Hawkeyes’ 47.
Junior outside linebacker Nick Herbig, who had three sacks, eight tackles and a forced fumble, was asked if the UW defense played well enough to win the game.
“Obviously not,” he said. “We lost. If we held them to zero we would have won.”
Is that realistic considering how UW’s offense and special teams gave Iowa a short field so many times?
“Any time we step on the field our mindset is to hold the other team to zero,” he said, “regardless if they get the ball on the 1-yard line.”
The loss was particularly crushing for UW because Purdue helped out the entire division by defeating Illinois, 31-24, in Champaign.
At the end of the day, the Illini (7-3, 4-3), Purdue (6-2, 4-3) Iowa (6-4, 4-3) and Minnesota (7-3, 4-3) were tied for first in the division.
UW could have been in that spot.
The battle between UW’s offense and Iowa’s defense was one-sided save for a few plays.
The Hawkeyes entered the day with impressive national rankings: No. 1 in yards per play (3.85), fifth in scoring defense (14.3 ppg), third in total defense (264.4 ypg), eighth against the run (92.8 ypg), and 10th against the pass (171.7 ypg).
UW, averaging 30.8 points and 386.0 total yards (183.3 rushing, 202.7 passing) couldn’t establish its running game and Graham Mertz threw the critical pick-six in the first half.
Mertz later hit Keontez Lewis for a 51-yard touchdown in the final minute of the first half to help UW pull within 14-10 but finished just 16 of 35 for 176 yards. He had two interceptions, one lost fumble and a touchdown pass. Mertz was not available for interviews because, according to a UW official, he was receiving medical treatment afterward.
Tailback Braelon Allen rushed 17 times for 40 yards. Isaac Guerendo rushed times seven times for 28 yards.
UW’s offense had the ball for 15 possessions. That unit turned an Iowa turnover into a field goal and hit the long pass to Lewis.
Nine drives ended with punts, three with turnovers and one on downs. UW went three and out six times.
UW finished with 227 yards on 66 plays, an average of 3.4 yards per play.
“Defense played really well,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Good job stopping the run. Outside of a bust we had in the coverage, pretty good job on pass defense, as well. That was good to see.”
Iowa generated just 79 yards on 35 plays in the opening half but held a 14-10 lead thanks to DeJean’s 32-yard interception return and the short touchdown drive after the blocked punt.
Quarterback Spencer Petras was sacked six times but made a handful of timely throws and finished 14 of 23 for 94 yards. Perhaps most important, his only turnover was a fumble on a sack by Herbig.
Iowa finished with 52 rushing yards on 45 carries.
“Proud of the way we played on defense,” Leonhard said. “But, we needed to get a win and we couldn’t get it done.
“Special teams let us down in scenarios and obviously when you give up a pick-six that kind of changes the whole momentum of the game. It is tough to overcome sometimes…
“We’ve got to find a way to punch our way out of it. That’s the only thing you can do when you’re back up against the wall after some turnovers or field position with special teams.”
Safety John Torchio, whose missed block led to the blocked punt that set up Iowa’s first touchdown, refused to criticize UW’s offense.
“I thought the defense as a whole played really well,” he said. “But we’re not going to point fingers. We’re not going to say: Offense, help us out.
“We’re just going to control what we can control. That’s what our mindset was all game long. Just keep doing the right thing, keep getting off the field.”
UW’s defense did its job Saturday. The offense and special teams? Not so much.
“I appreciate them for not pointing figures at us because that creates toxicity,” Dike said of the members of the defense. “That speaks to the kind of people they are.”