Iowa Football Notes: Hawkeyes Come Up Short
MADISON, Wis. – For many, Nate Stanley’s legacy was on the line in Iowa’s 24-22 loss to Wisconsin on Saturday. Statistical excellence and universal praise for the quarterback’s character haven’t been enough for some fans to forgive Stanley’s lack of success in big games, especially on the road.
While Stanley deserves the praise and accolades he receives, the idea that this year’s Heartland Trophy game was a referendum on his Hawkeye career may have been proven accurate.
Though a costly muffed snap allowed the Badgers to punch in a crucial touchdown early, Stanley’s presence was felt more on Saturday than it was in earlier shortcomings against Penn State and Michigan. A reflection of the Iowa offense as a whole, his far from dominant performance still minimized past woes (such as sacks) and came up with multiple clutch plays when they were desperately needed.
Stanley answered the bell in the second half. When Wisconisn went up 21-6 in the third quarter, he hit successive 26 and 16 yard passes to Tracy and Smith-Marsette, respectively, as the offense switched to an uptempo pace. He capped the drive off with two 14 yard bubble screens to Tracy, then zipped a three touchdown yard pass to Ragaini.
In the fourth, Stanley hit Tracy with Iowa’s do-or-die 75 yard touchdown on the first play of the Hawkeyes’ final drive. Tracy only had one man to beat, but credit Stanely with the read and perfect throw. Still, down 24-22, the senior couldn’t quite cross the plain on the subsequent two point conversion attempt.
That play seemed to sum up Stanley’s time at Iowa. Nobody could deny the 22 year old’s effort as he threw his body into the Wisconsin linebacker who met him at the goal line, nor could they deny the trust Iowa’s coaches put in him with the designed run play, or his instrumental role in putting the team in that position in the first place. Yet when the dust settled, the program from the Big Ten’s upper echelon got to celebrate, and Stanley found himself a few inches short.
That’s probably how the Menomonie, Wisconsin native will be remembered by Hawkeye fans: a good kid who, outside of a few fun, mostly meaningless wins over Ohio State and Mississippi State, came up short in the big ones. Stanley knows this truth better than anyone, as was clear in his crestfallen postgame answers. Coach Ferentz said after the game that no one is more invested in this team than Stanley. That’s tough swallow. That’s football, sometimes.
The Wisconsin loss is far from squarely on the shoulders of the offense, but let’s stay there for a moment. Iowa converted its only fourth down attempt on Saturday, something they’ve mostly done well with this year, but that’s where the positives on conversions end. Iowa was 1-9 on third down attempts against the Badgers. That’s not good. Iowa is 0-9 on two point conversion attempts this year. That’s really not good.
If you can’t pick up first downs, you settle for three points when you need six. If you can’t convert two point conversions, you miss out on points you’re already short on. If you remove your margin for error, your fumbled snap can decide the game despite winning the turnover margin.
It wasn’t all doom and gloom for the offense. Iowa’s young skill position players continued to make strides, with three of Iowa’s returning running backs averaging five yards per carry. That was also indicative of an offensive line that appeared to have regained much of its mojo, running the ball effectively when given the opportunity (Iowa only ran the ball 19 times with players other than Nate Stanley, and averaging 4.7 yards on those carries), and giving Stanley time on a number of pass plays. That effort was lead in part by returning leader on the line, Kyler Schott.
Redshirt freshman Tyrone Tracy also had a standout performance, grabbing 130 yards on his five targets, including the 75 yard touchdown reception. While nothing will make this offense a scoring machine against quality competition, the team’s 22 points against the best defense in the conference would have been enough to pull off wins against Michigan and Penn State early in the year.
Defense Bends Too Far
Iowa’s “bend, don’t break” mantra has been a theme this year, as the defense has mostly kept teams out of the end zone and within a range of points that a solid offense could have capitalized on. Tonight, though, it was ambiguous whether the unit broke, or simply bent further than it could afford to. The point is mute, as the stat book and scoreboard do not lie.
Of course, the addition of Doak Walker Award caliber running back Jonathan Taylor had to do with Iowa’s issues. Still, nothing excuses giving up 300 rushing yards, the conveniently round number that Phil Parker’s unit allowed in week 11.
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The defense found success when it could pressure the Badgers into going through the air, where they were mostly held in check all night with just 173 passing yards. But when Wisconsin needed to move the ball, they could count on Taylor to pound out seven to 12 yards in non-telegraphed situations.
I predicted heading into the game that Iowa could win if the Badgers were held to between 17 and 24 points. The defense kept them within the top boundary of that range, but ultimately it wasn’t enough. While it’s hard to fault the group too much, they gave up the most points they have all season, and had they kept Wisconsin in the 20 point range they’ve held all other opponents at or below, Iowa would have won. One thing is for sure: you can’t blame just one unit this week.
… That Epenesa sack-and-strip was awesome, though.
Keith Duncan broke the Iowa single season field goals record against the Badgers, hitting his 22nd of the year. Critics will minimize this stat as evidence of Iowa’s struggles to punch the ball into the end zone, but it truly is a testament to Duncan’s impact on the team.
He has allowed for 22 scores on otherwise stalled drives. His four field goals against Iowa State were all necessary to keep the CyHawk trophy in Iowa City, and his ability to reliably put points on the board is what kept Iowa in its close losses this year (heck, a few more field goal attempts and maybe Iowa beats Michigan 12-10, and one more field goal Saturday would have won it).
When you can trust a guy to put half a touchdown on the board, it undeniably goes a long way. Best of all, it’s a reward for the kid who knocked in Iowa’s iconic last second upset of Michigan in 2016, then elected to stick around after being beat out by Miguel Recinos for two years.
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Wisconsin’s eight penalties for 63 yards helped keep the Hawkeyes close, often coming at important moments and sometimes blowing good field position on third and fourth down.
Iowa was solidly on the right side of this column, and that’s just where Ferentz needs them to be. It can be noted, though, that Tyler Linderbaum was a clear victim of uncalled hands to the face on the final two point conversion attempt, though perhaps it shouldn’t be expected for refs to insert themselves into such key situations.
This note exists partly to complain about that moment, but credit genuinely should go to Iowa for playing a clean game outside of the early fumble. It won the turnover and penalty battles, which they’ll have to replicate against undefeated Minnesota next week.
Wake Up Call
Let’s be honest: this week proved that anything can happen in the Big Ten, and that it isn’t happening for Iowa right now. If the football program still considers itself in the half of the conference that competes for division titles and can go toe to toe with the rest of the Big Ten, then it needs to start showing up again.
Iowa lost its win streak against Michigan this year, and is entering panic mode in its series against Penn State and Wisconsin. The Nittany Lions have won six straight, the Badgers four. Meanwhile, Iowa takes a back seat to Northwestern and Minnesota in consecutive years as the two Cinderella stories find themselves in contention for a Big Ten title long after Iowa is eliminated.
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Things could be worse for Iowa, a lot worse. With a bowl victory, the team can still reach 10 wins. But as the Nate Stanley era approaches its end and the Hawkeyes have to start worrying about breaking in a new quarterback in 2020, things look the most like a plateau that they have since 2015’s magical regular season run.
Time for Iowa to set the record straight. If Minnesota comes into Kinnick Stadium and leaves with the Floyd of Rosedale, as every Iowa fan should understand could very well happen, things will feel pretty bleak in the Hawkeye State. If the “natural order” truly includes Iowa as a force to be reckoned with, then next week could go along way towards restoring it.
Wisconsin has won 7 of its last meetings against Iowa
Wisconsin’s 300 rushing yards were its most against the Hawkeyes since 2000
Jonathan Taylor is the first player to rush for 250 yards against Iowa since at least 2000, as Michigan State’s TJ Duckett ran for 248 against Iowa that year
Iowa is 14-4 in its last 18 trophy games
Tracy’s 75 yard TD ties for the longest of Stanley’s career. The other 75 yarder was to Nick Easley in the Outback Bowl
LB Barrington Wade made his first career start
Matt Hankin’s interception was the first of his career
Nate Stanley threw for 208 yards, raising his career total to 7,509 and passing Ricky Stanzi (7,377) for third all-time in program history