GOOD: Welcome To The Tyrone Tracy Show
Iowa's offense overall continues to be a real slog, but there are bright spots here and there. The only silver lining from Brandon Smith's untimely injury is that it's provided more opportunities for Tyrone Tracy, Jr., and Double-T is definitely making an impact. Tracy had two receptions for 88 yards and one fantastic (and hilarious) touchdown against Northwestern two weeks ago. He improved on that performance against Wisconsin, with five receptions for 130 yards (both career highs) and a touchdown that briefly gave us hope that Iowa could find a way to snatch improbable victory from the laws of likely defeat against Wisconsin.
That 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run was Iowa's longest pass play of the season and their longest overall since Nick Easley's 75-yard touchdown reception against Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl last year. Tracy has two of the three longest offensive plays of Iowa's season so far and seems to be emerging as a legitimate playmaker, which is something the Iowa offense needs badly. Hopefully his strong form can continue for a few more weeks.
Honorable Mention: Keith Duncan, still the field goal maestro (3/3)
BAD: That Run Defense
Before Saturday, Iowa had conceded 702 rushing yards and two touchdowns on the season, which worked out to averages of 87.8 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Those numbers put them in the top ten nationally for rush defense. Those numbers took a hit after Wisconsin absolutely made mincemeat out of Iowa's run defense to the tune of 300 yards and a touchdown on 46 carries. After facing Wisconsin, Iowa now ranks 20th nationally in yards per game (111.3 ypg) and 31st nationally in yards per carry (3.6 ypc). Iowa's yards per carry against average went up a full half a yard just because of the Wisconsin game. Woof.
The stats are tough to look at but they pale in comparison to what it was like to watch Wisconsin run game grind up and spit out the Iowa defense. Wisconsin went back to the run again and again and again and for good reason -- because Iowa had no answers for stopping it. Every time Wisconsin decided to pass instead of run the ball in the second half, I considered it a small victory for Iowa (though a few of those pass plays did turn into big plays on their third touchdown drive of the game). At least with a pass play there was the chance of an incompletion or an interception; run plays just appeared to be steady gains of 6-8 yards, broken up with even bigger gains on occasion.
No level of the defense looked very good against the run, but the linebackers and safeties seemed to struggle in particular. We saw too many linebackers futilely attempting to arm tackle Jonathan Taylor and too many safeties attempting to trip him up or only managing to shove him out of bounds several yards downfield. Bad positioning, bad tackling, bad effort... everything about the run defense was bad on Saturday.
Honorable Mention: Stanley's big game jitters on the road, Iowa's still-shaky interior OL play
UGLY: The Same Old Gameplan
The 2010s are wrapping up this year, which means that it's now official that Iowa beat Wisconsin just once this decade (1-7). That's the worst 10-year stretch for Iowa in the history of this rivalry. The one game that Iowa won in that stretch (2015) featured four Wisconsin turnovers, including a truly improbable fumble at the Iowa 1-yard line. And Iowa still only won that game 10-6. Iowa simply appears to have no idea how to beat Wisconsin at this point. Trying to beat Wisconsin by being better than them at the things they do well is truly a fool's endeavor.
Could this game have gone down another path if events in the first half had gone a bit differently? Perhaps. If Iowa was able to score a touchdown after recovering a fumble at the Wisconsin 16-yard line, they could have had an early 7-0 lead. And if they were able to score on their subsequent drive (after a 31-yard missed field goal attempt from Wisconsin), which seemed promising until a bad snap led to a fumble that Wisconsin recovered, they could have had a 10-0 or 14-0 lead on Wisconsin in the second quarter. But that isn't what happened and Iowa struggled to counter after Wisconsin settled down and stopped missing field goals and turning the ball over.
Outside of the drive that ended in a fumble and featured some shockingly effective running from Iowa's offense and a field goal drive in the second quarter that was sparked by a 21-yard run by Tyler Goodson, Iowa's offense only really showed much life when they fell down 21-6 in the third quarter, switched to a hurry-up offense, and let Nate Stanley fling it. On the first drive after that switch, Stanley went 6/7 for 69 yards and a touchdown pass. After an interception got Iowa the ball again just barely a minute later, Stanley went 4/8 for 24 yards as Iowa settled for a field goal. On Iowa's next possession, Stanley went one-and-done with a 75-yard touchdown pass to Tracy. Iowa's offense never got the ball back after that, but in all Stanley went 11/16 for 168 yards and two touchdowns after Iowa changed things up on offense. He went 6/12 for 40 yards and no touchdowns otherwise.
And I get it: Iowa can't really run a hurry-up offense the entire game because Iowa's offense also needs to bleed clock and keep the defense off the field (and thus fresher). But switching things up on offense gave Iowa its only real success of the game and seemed to catch Wisconsin off-balance. And that seems like the real lesson: Iowa can't beat Wisconsin if they can't surprise them and put them in uncomfortable situations. Trying to play Wisconsin straight up and conservatively hasn't been a winning bet for a decade now; why not give something else a shot, even if it's just a matter of picking your spots to zag instead of zigging?
Why not mix in some hurry-up earlier in the game? Why not hit Wisconsin with an "exotic"? We haven't seen Iowa run a fake field goal or fake punt all season; if they have plays for those situations (and based on last year, they surely do), what are they waiting for to try them? Saturday's game was the biggest of the season for Iowa; if ever there was a time to dig deep into the playbook or the bag of tricks, that was the game. But no. Iowa duly punted when they were "supposed" to and they kicked three field goals from fourth downs inside the Wisconsin 22-yard line. Iowa played it safe and came away with the same result they've had seven of the last eight times they've played Wisconsin: a loss.
Honorable Mention: the spotting of the ball by the referees, Iowa kicking the ball away and putting a clearly-gassed defense on the field at the end of the game