Howe: Beast of the Big Ten West Takes Out Hawkeyes Again

September 23, 2018

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Hawkeyes were hoping to lighten their load with their rival in town Saturday night. Instead, they left Kinnick Stadium continuing to lug around the 500-pound gorilla that is Wisconsin.

The Badgers won for the fifth time in a row here. That streak dates back to 2008. They also triumphed for the sixth time in the last seven meetings in this series.

Had Iowa played cleaner football, it could have removed the hairy beast from their back. Instead, it lost the turnover battle, 3-0, and must live another year in the shadow of Wisconsin. There was no Kinnick magic on this night.

Sure, the Hawkeyes still could win the division. They’ll likely only be underdogs in one more game this season (Penn State), while Wisconsin has road trips to State College and Michigan. That’s little consolation after another gut punch from the men from Madison.

Iowa had chances to win. It held a 17-14 lead and momentum with 5:40 left to play in the game. It then yielded an 88-yard touchdown drive.

Give the Badgers credit. They showed no panic during their impressive march. As time ticked away on the decisive drive, they ran the ball, they threw the ball, they did whatever they wanted. They looked like the team that had won three of the last four Big Ten West championships and now have a leg up on claiming another.

Iowa gifted one touchdown to the visitors in the third quarter. Backup tight end Shaun Beyer lost track of where he was on a punt return and the ball hit him in the back of the leg. The Badgers recovered it on the home 10-yard line and scored three plays later.

Hawkeye head coach Kirk Ferentz normally doesn’t throw players under the proverbial bus very often. You can probably count the times he’s done so during his 20 years on one hand. He tossed Beyer under there.

“There’s a communication involved there, but it seemed like most everybody was getting the message there, so for whatever reason it didn’t quite get communicated (to Beyer). And when you’re in that area it’s dangerous,” Ferentz said.

His comments on the matter during his postgame radio interview were even more damning. And Beyer wasn’t the only player with a key mistake.

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Kyle Groeneweg fumbled a punt return in Wisconsin territory that squashed a scoring chance. Nate Stanley threw an interception in the closing minute when the Hawkeyes had three timeouts and were trying to drive for the winning score.

The players weren’t the only people worthy of criticism. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz called some curious plays throughout the game. None of them stood out more than the ones before the Badgers’ game winning drive.

Up 17-14 with around 6 minutes to play in the game, Iowa had a first and 10 at its own 42. After a five-yard run by Mehki Sargent, Ferentz puzzlingly called a pair of pass plays that ended up incomplete, each stopping the clock. The Hawkeyes averaged 4.8 yards per carry, so it wasn’t like the ground game was stalling.

“We had a couple opportunities to sustain drives in the second half, but to their credit too when they had that opportunity they took it and went and it was a beautiful drive on their part. And we gave up a big play on that possession and that was a tough play for us there,” Kirk Ferentz said.

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They were averaging 4.8 yards per carry. Run the ball.

Defensive coordinator Phil Parker isn’t without fault, either. On the game-winning touchdown pass from Alex Hornibrook to A.J. Taylor, linebacker Nick Niemann was covering the receiver. Stop me if you’ve heard that alignment being criticized before.

“We do that frequently. That’s part of our defense,” Kirk Ferentz said. “Yeah, the guy made a good throw and the receiver did a good job of getting open and it’s just part of what we do.”

It that situation, it was a bad plan.

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There were other plays to be made as usually is the case in close games. Some, like the aforementioned, stuck out more than others. Wisconsin made the most if its chances. The Hawkeyes did not.

At times Saturday night, Iowa looked like the better team. It put up 404 yards on a defense it hadn’t scored an offensive touchdown against in the last two meetings. Its defense held the Badgers to 14 points through 54 minutes.

Opportunity presented itself. The Hawkeyes fumbled it away.

“I guess the thing that hurts me the most is us kind of hurting ourselves,” defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “As a defensive line, as a team, we did things that we usually don’t do. We usually harp on these details. To make those mistakes we normally don’t make is probably the most upsetting thing.”

Epenesa and other players in the postgame press conference were determined not to let this game define them. They knew the narrative that Wisconsin owned them gained more steam, but they couldn’t change that now. All they could do was shoot to win the rest of their eight conference games and hope for some help from Wisconsin’s future opponents.

If that happens, Saturday’s setback becomes a bump in the road on that way to the Big Ten championship game. If not, they’ll look back at this game and be reminded of what might have been.

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