IOWA CITY — A snoozer of a first half. Just plain boring.
Enough to make you fall asleep. Enough to make you change the channel.
And then the second half.
What a bunch of nutso events to cap a nutso college football regular season. A pretty darned good one, too, for the Iowa Hawkeyes, who finally solved Wisconsin, 28-7, on a snowy Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
The Heartland Trophy, that big old brass bull, will reside in Iowa City for the first time in five years thanks to a bullish performance from Iowa’s defense and some timely big offensive plays.
No. 16 Iowa (6-2), health permitting, will play someone this coming week on some day at some location as part of the Big Ten Conference’s Champions Week. Coach Kirk Ferentz said he has zero insight into any of that.
The Hawkeyes will do it knowing they saved a season that appeared to be teetering after an 0-2 start, those losses coming by a total of five points. Well done, boys.
“I’m proud of my guys,” said Iowa’s Chauncey Golston, who capped his best college season with perhaps his best college game (a team-high nine tackles, including a sack). “There were a whole bunch of people talking about us like ‘Oh, my god, maybe some of the stuff that happened in the offseason is weighing on them.’ But we came through. We just ran off six in a row. I’m impressed and excited to see what comes in the future.”
“There was nothing easy today,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz. “We knew that going in. Just pleased, I’m most pleased with the way the guys stuck with it. Because at times it looked pretty ugly. That’s going to happen in these types of games.”
Calling the first half a slog wouldn’t do it complete justice. Two like-minded teams spent the first 30 minutes basically punting the football back and forth.
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That number was 13, seven by Iowa. A pair of Keith Duncan field goals gave Iowa a 6-0 halftime lead, a 45-yarder with one second left giving the senior 20 career field goals of 40 yards or more, a school record.
Wisconsin missed a long field-goal attempt on the first possession of the second half, with Iowa countering by going bombs away: three Spencer Petras pass completions accounting for 71 yards. He hit Brandon Smith for 14 yards off play action, threw a deep ball to Ihmir Smith-Marsette over the middle for 38 yards and hit Smith-Marsette again on a 19-yard floater to the right corner of the end zone.
A 2-point conversion pass to Smith made it 14-0.
“Keep pushing hard, keep going hard, keep attacking those guys, and it’ll come,” said Smith-Marsette, who had seven catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
“Wisconsin’s defense is really good, they’re really physical and disciplined,” said Petras, who completed 14 of 25 throws for 211 yards. “Not a ton that we could do. We just always talk about through the ups and downs we’ve got to keep playing, got to keep chopping away and good things will happen.”
Charlie Jones fumbled a Wisconsin punt, trying but failing to pick it up on the bounce, leading to a Nakia Watson 1-yard TD run later in the quarter. That was the first touchdown for a struggling Badgers offense in 154 minutes and 32 seconds.
But Iowa countered with another big play. Petras found Smith-Marsette with another long beauty, a 53-yard TD that made it a 21-7 game late in the third. Smith-Marsette, who had seven catches for 140 yards, did a forward flip as he hit the end zone, landing awkardly, injuring his ankle and missing the rest of the game.
“Do I regret the flip? No,” said Smith-Marsette, in a precautionary walking boot but insisting he would be fine. “Would I do it again? Yeah. I’m just happy we got the win. Everybody was having fun, and we came out with the victory.”
Fast forward to the fourth quarter. Iowa’s defense stopped Wisconsin on downs at the Hawkeyes 18, then got a Jack Campbell interception in the end zone on a fourth-down Graham Mertz pass.
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Wisconsin (2-3) was awarded first-and-goal at the 5 after Iowa punter Tory Taylor dropped the snap from center and booted the ball off the ground (about 35 yards, no less) instead of trying to pick it back up. That’s a rarely seen illegal kicking penalty, half the distance from where Taylor kicked it.
“I guess that’s what players from Australia do when they see the ball laying there,” Ferentz said. “We’re trying to figure out still how he got the ball downfield that far with all those bodies.”
Tyler Goodson officially put it away on the very next play after Campbell’s pick, taking a handoff right, running about 10 yards, stopping and cutting past a Wisconsin defender and into the open field for an 80-yard TD. That was 80 of Iowa’s 127 yards rushing.
“Going into the game, I think all running backs expect to break a long run,” Goodson said. “We knew it was going to be a tough, physical game, and Wisconsin likes to stop the run and likes to have their (linebackers) make plays. As a running back, it was all (about) just keep going, just keep pounding it.”
The Kinnick Stadium PA crew played “Jump Around” — the signature song at Camp Randall Stadium, the Badgers’ home — as the clock ran out. Multiple Iowa players did snow angels on the turf in celebration. The perfect ending to the second-half wackiness: a player injuring himself front flipping after a touchdown, a punter illegally kicking a ball off the turf, snow angels ... and an Iowa win over a team it hasn’t been able to beat.
“Going into the game, we knew it was going to be a tough, defensive battle,” Ferentz said. “I think everybody understood that. When you get in games like this, everything you do is contested, every yard is a fight. That certainly was the case today.”
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