IOWA CITY − Iowa football entered Saturday afternoon with a slim chance (8%) at the Big Ten West title. The Hawkeyes needed Purdue to go on the road and beat Illinois, which was a touchdown favorite. Then coach Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa team needed to beat Wisconsin, which had an equally slim chance at the Big Ten West crown and owned eight of the last 10 wins in the series.
Purdue finished off Illinois shortly after Iowa and Wisconsin kicked off at Kinnick Stadium, and all eyes were on the battle for the Heartland Trophy. It wasn’t always pretty but Iowa did enough in all three phases to get a sweet victory over the Badgers. Iowa beat Wisconsin 24-10 on Saturday for its third straight win and a much clearer path at the Big Ten championship game.
After two weeks of positive steps forward, Iowa’s offense regressed back to the unit that was dead last nationally for most of this season. The Hawkeyes managed only 146 yards of total offense, a season-low. The ability or inability to find success has largely depended on the offensive line’s play, and Saturday was a step back for the group.
It began in the first series when the Hawkeyes had three negative plays in a row, resulting in a punt. Each one of Iowa’s offensive linemen had low points. The tackles allowed three sacks by Wisconsin’s Nick Herbig and the interior of the line didn’t fair much better as the group allowed six sacks and 11 tackles for loss for the game. However, Iowa’s offense did one thing well that made a huge difference: convert on favorable opportunities.
Early in the second quarter, defensive lineman Deontae Craig blocked a Wisconsin punt that set the offense up at the Badgers’ 17-yard line. It took just two plays before freshman running back Kaleb Johnson waltzed into the end zone and Iowa took a 7-3 lead. The Hawkeyes punted on their next five possessions, but special teams lightning struck again with 50 seconds left in the third quarter courtesy of defensive back Cooper DeJean. Filling in for an injured Arland Bruce IV on punt returns, DeJean returned a Wisconsin punt 41 yards to the Badgers 18-yard line. A Spencer Petras quarterback sneak capped off a five-play drive that extended Iowa’s lead to 21-10 and put the game away for good.
Defensively, Iowa’s priority was stopping Wisconsin’s rushing attack and forcing quarterback Graham Mertz to beat them. And the plan worked to near perfection. Running back Braelon Allen entered Saturday with 100-plus rushing yards in 14 of his last 18 games, but rushed for just 40 yards on 17 carries against Iowa’s defense.
Wisconsin’s first score of the game, an early field goal, was set up by a strip sack by its defense that put the Badgers on a short field. And just before halftime, Iowa’s only big defensive mistake of the game, a blown coverage in the secondary allowed for a 51-yard Wisconsin touchdown. Outside of those two instances, a 37-yard drive and 51-yard pass, Iowa’s defense allowed very few yards, intercepted Mertz twice and scored a defensive touchdown: a pick-six by DeJean.
The game ball unquestionably goes to DeJean, who finished the game with 11 tackles, a pick-six and 82 punt return yards. With four interceptions this season, the Odebolt native is making a strong case for Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.
Iowa’s win on Saturday re-inserts the Hawkeyes firmly in the Big Ten West race but it’s not a clear path yet. Next Saturday, Illinois travels to Michigan, and the Hawkeyes need a Michigan victory and to win out themselves in order to secure a second straight trip to Indianapolis.
For now, Hawkeye fans will be pleased with a third straight win and a trophy game victory over a division rival.
On to next Saturday, the biggest weekend of Iowa’s season: at rival Minnesota and another week of scoreboard watching, hoping for an Illini slip-up.