The Good: Offensive Line
Iowa’s offense was fairly impressive against a solid Wisconsin defense, thanks in large part thanks to their offensive line. Nate Stanley, who went 14/23 for 256 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, was not sacked, or even hurried by the Wisconsin pass rush. Iowa rushed for 148 yards on 31 attempts, good for 4.8 YPC. Ivory Kelly-Martin and Toren Young averaged over 5 YPC, with IKM rushing for a team-high 79 yards on 14 attempts. The offense was barely outgained by Wisconsin’s, 415 to 404 yards, but both teams picked up 19 first downs and Iowa averaged more yards per play than the Badgers. There weren’t a lot of points scored (we’ll get to that) but Iowa’s line should get all the praise for keeping the offense moving.
The Bad: The Punt Team
If we’re using Occam’s Razor, special teams cost Iowa the football game because Kyle Groeneweg giveth and Kyle Groeneweg taketh away. Tied 7-7, Wisconsin punted from its own 24 and Groeneweg returned it to the Badger 45 until D’Cota Dixon was blocked into him, causing a fumble. Wisconsin recovered but Iowa’s defense held and forced another punt…which Groeneweg fair caught at Iowa’s own 3-yard line.
So, a few things. D’Cota Dixon shouldn’t get credit for a forced fumble because he only bumped into Groeneweg, who for some reason, was carrying the ball like a loaf of bread. It’s not like he went Brian Urlacher on Edgerrin James or something. I just want to get that out of the way.
Second, it’s tough to conceptualize how much that fumble hurt the Hawkeyes. Consider that on Iowa’s previous drive they’d put together a brilliant scoring drive, highlighted by a wonderful Nate Stanley scramble and 46-yard bomb to T.J. Hockenson. The Hawkeye defense then forced a three and out and with a little under four minutes in the game, they had an opportunity to close out the half with another scoring drive. But instead of getting the ball at Wisconsin’s 45, Groeneweg fumbled and turned the ball right back over.
Credit to Iowa’s defense for holding the Badgers to another punt, but the damage was done. Iowa would get the ball back with less than a minute and for some reason, Groeneweg would fair catch the ball at his own 3-yard line. Any hopes of a score before halftime were dashed.
As we know, that probably wasn’t even the worst play of the game for special teams. Iowa got the ball to start the second half, kicked a field goal to take the lead and on the ensuing Wisconsin possession they forced a punt. Groeneweg was, for some reason, unusually deep on the return and, for some reason, he allowed it to bounce. Shaun Beyer, a backup tight end, felt the need to aggressively block a Badger, which is something that would usually be appreciated…except for he kicked the ball, making it live and allowing Wisconsin to pounce on it. The Badgers scored on the ensuing possession, taking a 14-10 lead. Chris Hassel said it best:
Last 3 punt returns by Iowa:— Chris Hassel (@Hassel_Chris) September 23, 2018
Fair catch inside 3 yard line
This may be how the Big Ten West was lost.
The Ugly: Iowa, Again, Loses a Close Game
You could argue that the punt team mishaps didn’t cost Iowa the game, as they’d actually take a 17-14 lead at one point in the 3rd quarter. And sure, you can look at it that way because nothing should be examined in a vacuum. My stance is that yes, those mishaps (and a few others) cost Iowa the game because under Kirk Ferentz, the Hawkeyes have such a thin margin for error when it comes to winning a close game that any bad breaks will typically result in a loss.
What if Miles Taylor played Juwan Johnson better, or Amani Hooker knocked down McSorley’s pass in 2017? What if Beathard didn’t overthrow Kittle against NDSU, or Jaleel didn’t get called for that facemask against Northwestern in 2016? What if that ball didn’t land on a Michigan State player’s back and lead to an interception in the Big Ten Championship? Remember any of the close losses in 2014? Iowa State? Wisconsin? Nebraska. All by a field goal or less. Remember Melvin Gordon converting a crucial 3rd and 13, under the lights, at Kinnick? Sound familiar? Ouch.
I mean, I can keep going and talk about NIU in 2013, CMU, Indiana, Purdue or Nebraska in 2012 (lol 2012 was a dumpster fire), Iowa State or Minnesota in 2011 or [checks notes] every loss in 2010, but I won’t. Because you know what I know: Iowa loses more close games than they win. Because Kirk’s system is built to keep Iowa in every game. Actually winning those games is an entirely different animal.
On the few other mishaps, I don’t think anyone had a problem with Iowa going for it on 4th and 1 on their first drive. But a QB sneak when you have a full yard to go? Or what about their opening drive of the second half, when they drove to the Wisconsin six-yard line…but then had Stanley throw a pass instead of running it up the gut. The pass, of course, was incomplete and Iowa ultimately had to settle for a field goal. A touchdown would’ve changed things. A field goal didn’t.
Basically, Iowa lost and you can point to a handful of reasons as to why it happened. Blame Groeneweg or Beyer or Brian or Kirk or whatever makes you feel better. This game was a microcosm of Iowa’s tradition of losing close games: you can point to 4-5 plays and say that if they would've went differently, Iowa would’ve won. But at the end of the day, those plays didn’t go differently, and Iowa lost. So really, that oft used explanation doesn't sound so much like an explanation anymore. These days, it just sounds like an excuse.