#16 Iowa 28, Wisconsin 7: Home Is Where The Heartland Is

By RossWB on December 12, 2020 at 8:43 pm
go hawks go
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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Welcome home, Albert. 

For the first time since 2015, Iowa beat Wisconsin to claim The Heartland Trophy and complete a clean sweep of their rivalry games. Minnesota? Check. Nebraska? Check. Wisconsin? Finally -- check. The win was Iowa's sixth straight this season and finished off a regular season that started with heartbreak and frustration, but ended with bragging rights and some degree of satisfaction. 

The first half of this game was, in truth, claw-your-eyes-out ugly. Iowa and Wisconsin traded punts with such fervor that you would have thought they were white elephant gifts that neither team was determined to take home. Wisconsin punted the ball six times before half; Iowa one-upped them by punting seven times. There was so much punting that we found ourselves researching the Big Ten's single-game punting records. After determining that the Big Ten's "most punts in a single game" record was likely out of reach (Michigan's Chuck Ortmann punted 24 times against Ohio State in 1950; the combined record for two teams is 45, set by Michigan and Ohio State in that same game), we were pleasantly surprised to note that Legendary Nile Kinnick still holds the Big Ten single game record for most punting yards -- 731 in an Iowa win (!) over Notre Dame in 1939. 

The only offensive production in the first half came from Keith Duncan, who drilled two field goals to give Iowa a 6-0 lead. The first came in the first quarter, after Nick Niemann recovered a Wisconsin fumble at their 34-yard line. The Iowa offense went 20 plays in five yards before stalling out an settling for a 30-yard Duncan field goal. The second came right before halftime as Iowa put together a six-play, 36-yard drive (their longest of the half!) after the defense stopped Wisconsin on a 4th-and-1 from Iowa 31. Iowa was able to move the ball down the field thanks to a defensive pass interference call (that thankfully wiped out what would have been a truly hideous Spencer Petras interception), an 11-yard pass to Sam LaPorta, and a 20-yard screen pass to Tyler Goodson. Yes, Iowa finally completed a screen pass to a running back. 2020's full of surprises. Keith Duncan squeaked in a 45-yard field goal with a very friendly doink to give Iowa a 6-0 halftime lead. 

In-between those two field goals was a lot of punting. A lot of punting. Here's a visual representation for you: 

PUNTS PUNTS PUNTS

So. Many. Punts. 

Thankfully the second half revealed that touchdowns were not, in fact, illegal and that -- excuse this mild heresy -- there's more to the game than just punting and defense. 

Wisconsin threatened to get on the board right after half with their best offensive drive of the game to that point, driving 46 yards on nine plays. The Iowa defense stood firm at 3rd-and-2 from the Iowa 29, though, and forced the Badgers into a 47-yard field goal. That was important because a 46-yard field goal probably would have been worth three points. A 47-yard field goal try was worth none, though, as it fell just short. 

Seeing a (semi-) competent offense on the field appeared to light a fire under Iowa's own offense as they put together their best drive of the game (by far), galloping down the field to cover 71 yards in five plays. Petras' passes found the right calibration (mostly) and he converted back-to-back throws to Brandon Smith and Ihmir Smith-Marsette for 14 and 38 yards, respectively, before going back to Smith-Marsette on third down for a beautiful touchdown catch. That snare, followed by a well-executed two-point conversion (again! for the third straight time this season! 2020's surreality remains untopped) pushed Iowa's lead to 14-0. 

That 14-0 lead felt somewhat insurmountable with the way Iowa's defense was squeezing the life out of the hapless Badger offense, and it looked like everything was coming up Iowa when the defense forced Wisconsin into a three-and-out on the very next series. The only thing that Iowa had to do was avoid a costly turnover that gave Wisconsin points or outstanding field position.

Oops. 

Charlie Jones has brought a daredevil approach to punt returns this season, generally to very good effect. His returns have helped Iowa gain good field position and need shorter drives on offense to score points (always a welcome boost for this offense). But that devil-may-care approach has its risks, too, and they were exposed in painful fashion in the third quarter in a which a seemingly late decision to field a punt ended in an disastrous muff that was recovered by Wisconsin at the Iowa 25. He either needed to step up and fair catch the ball cleanly or back off and let Wisconsin down it. He chose a middle path instead and he chose... poorly. Two plays later Wisconsin was in the end zone and the control Iowa had over the game seemed to have evaporated in a flash. 

When Iowa went three-and-out on their next offensive series (three plays for one yard, just phenomenal stuff), it was definitely approaching "hold your butts" territory. Fortunately, the Iowa defense is almost always there to bail out the Iowa offense and they did so again here, forcing a three-and-out and forcing another Badger punt after Chauncey Golston destroyed Graham Mertz on a third-down sack. The Iowa offense found its spark again (the spark turned out to be "get the ball to Smith-Marsette") and after a big 16-yard rush by Goodson, Petras hit a home run pass to ISM on play action for a 53-yard touchdown bomb that restored Iowa's two-touchdown lead. It really was magnificent: 

Less magnificent was Smith-Marsette's landing after flipping into the end zone on the touchdown; he landed awkwardly on his ankle and limped off the field to the locker room. He returned to the game later wearing a protective boot. The good news is that he didn't seem to think the injury was serious: 

Wisconsin answered Iowa's touchdown with a 16-play, 56-yard drive that ate up over half of the fourth quarter... and resulted in no points. Iowa stoned them on 4th-and-11 from the Iowa 19 and took over the ball their own 19-yard line. Alas, the offense did nothing (three-and-out) and brought the punting team back out. At which point Tory Taylor did something I have never seen before: he kicked the ball off the ground. Unfortunately, that's not legal in American football and Iowa got nailed with the rarely-seen "illegal kicking" penalty. Which is a really debilitating penalty: Iowa lost possession and Wisconsin gained half the distance to the goal line. 

That meant Wisconsin got to start a drive at the Iowa 5-yard line with a chance to cut the lead to seven with seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter. Time to start holding our butts? Nope. Not with this defense. Wisconsin ran four plays from the Iowa 5 and got three yards and zero points, the drive dying with a Mertz interception to Jack Campbell. One play later Tyler Goodson did this -- 

-- and it was chips and salsa time in Iowa City and Iowa finally had another win over the Badgers. 

Thank You, Defense

Iowa's defense has been an absolute rock all season and they were again today. They benefited from playing a Wisconsin team that was bereft of many of its usual skill position starters, but they still put the clamps on the Badgers for pretty much this entire game. They held Wisconsin to 66 yards of offense in the first half and just 225 yards in the game. Wisconsin's best scoring opportunity came from catastrophic special teams blunders that gifted them incredible scoring position (the Iowa 25 and the Iowa 5; they still only managed seven points out of those starting positions). The two other decent drives they put together ran out of steam against an Iowa defense that effectively denied big plays and tightened up near the red zone. Particularly notable: Iowa held Wisconsin to 56 yards on 33 carries, a meager 1.7 yards per attempt. After years of getting plowed over by Wisconsin's running game, Iowa stopped it in its tracks today. 

There were heroes aplenty on the defensive side of things, but Chauncey Golston was particularly excellent. He had a team-high nine tackles, including that critical sack in the third quarter to halt Wisconsin's budding momentum. He was a menace all game long, as he's been for much of this season. Iowa also got strong performances from Nick Niemann (second on the team with eight tackles and Johnny-on-the-spot with the fumble recovery to set up Iowa's first field goal) and Jack Campbell, who was both a heat-seeking missile delivering punishing hits and fierce in coverage, as he proved by grabbing the game-icing interception in the fourth quarter. 

Some Truly Un-special Plays

Special teams has been a big positive for Iowa this season, between the threat of Smith-Marsette on kickoff returns, Tory Taylor's consistently excellent punts, Keith Duncan's reliable placekicking (at least inside 50 yards), and Charlie Jones' effective punt returns. But the special teams were a very, very big negative for Iowa today, with the exception of Duncan. The blunders by Jones and Taylor gave Wisconsin their best (and really only) opportunities to score points all game. Fortunately, the defense bailed them out and limited the damage inflicted by those blunders, but still: those were some terrible, terrible mistakes. The good news, at least, is that they're not indicative of the way those players have played the rest of this season in the least -- and they're not even indicative of the way they played in the rest of this game. Taylor's other punts weren't as excellent as they were earlier in the season, but they were still effective. Jones didn't lose his punt return job after that costly muff and had a decent run-back on his next return (though it was negated by a holding penalty). Here's hoping the mistakes we saw today were just flukes.

Let it rip, Spencer?

It was another slightly odd game for Spencer Petras. His final stat line -- 14/25, 211 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT -- certainly isn't bad. He threw some of his nicest passes of the season today, particularly on the touchdowns to Smith-Marsette. And yet... there were plenty of moments that made your heart leap into your throat, too. First half Petras was jittery and off-target for the most part. He nearly threw interceptions on back-to-back passes; one was called back because of a pass interference penalty and the other slipped through the Wisconsin safety's hands. The talent we saw in the Good Spencer throws -- the arm strength and the accuracy -- makes it clear why the coaches have stood behind him all season long; the goal is still to figure out how to get that Petras to show up for more than a few passes each game. 

The ISM Show

In his final game at Kinnick Stadium, one of the most exciting players of the Kirk Ferentz Era put on an impressive show. Ihmir Smith-Marsette finished the game with seven receptions for 140 yards and two touchdowns, either tying or setting career records in each of those categories, as well as two of the finest highlights in a career that's had no shortage of brilliant plays. Smith-Marsette has had blinding speed since he arrived at Iowa, but his play this season has showcased his growth as a receiver, particularly in his route-running and his willingness and ability to make tough catches in traffic. In a different offense, with a different quarterback, his numbers would look far more impressive than they were this season (25 receptions, 345 yards, 4 TD). But he's still an outstanding receiver, the best Iowa has had since Marvin McNutt, and it's been an absolute joy to watch him produce countless big plays for Iowa over the last four seasons. 

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