MADISON, Wis. — Understandably, there was no reason for Iowa football players to elegantly describe how it felt to lose the way they lost Saturday.
Not when they dropped a must-win game to stay in the Big Ten West’s title chase. Not when they lost a fourth-straight game to the West’s top program since there’s been a Big Ten West. Not when they lost by one score for the third time in league play.
“It sucks, losing one-possession games,” Hawkeye offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said after his team’s 24-22 defeat to the Badgers Saturday in Camp Randall Stadium.
“It kind of sucks,” said Iowa kicker Keith Duncan, talking about losing, but also about setting the school record for field goals in a season. He has 22 through nine games. In conference play, he has 15 field goals to his team’s 10 touchdowns. He’d prefer 5 to 20.
“It sucks,” Iowa senior quarterback Nate Stanley said, after finishing his career as a starter against Wisconsin with an 0-3 record, and no West titles to show for his entire body of work.
It sucks to be stuck a half-yard short of the goal line on a two-point conversion try with 3:12 left that would have tied the score, especially since it came immediately after a 75-yard thunderbolt touchdown throw to Tyrone Tracy.
The quarterback draw play, Wisconsin defenders said later, caught them by surprise. Just not enough to stop them from adjusting and stopping Stanley before he reached the goal line.
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Stanley wasn’t quite bullish enough, and the brass bull Heartland Trophy stays in Madison for a fourth-straight winter.
“No one likes it,” Wirfs said. “No one likes it at all.
“I don’t know if Nate’s got the bull at all ever since he’s been here. No? I haven’t gotten it yet, either. It would have been nice to bring the bull home. Everyone’s pretty bummed out about that.”
For a change, we can’t lay this loss on Iowa’s offense. It didn’t get enough done against Michigan and Penn State. But you’d have taken 22 points coming into this one, no questions asked.
Sure, 16 of them came after the Hawkeyes were in a 21-6 hole. But desperate times called for desperate measures, and the Stanley-led offense had a terrific and spirited fourth quarter in accumulating those 16 points.
No, this loss is on the defense. It allowed 250 rushing yards to the colossal Jonathan Taylor, 300 total rushing yards, and 473 total yards.
The Hawkeyes opted to go deep with their kickoff after they pulled within 24-22 with two timeouts and the 3:12 left. Stop the Badgers on downs, get the ball back, try to get within range of yet another Duncan field goal.
But they couldn’t contain Taylor and get the ball back.
“He runs hard, plays hard,” said Iowa defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore. “He plays with good effort, he runs with good pad level.”
He runs with good patience, with good perception of how a play is developing, with good power. With great power.
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Still, you just can’t give up 300 rushing yards. Everyone knew Iowa would need yet another A-game from its ‘D,’ the unit that gave the Hawkeyes chances against Michigan and Penn State. Not this time.
“I think we played worse than we have in the past,” Hawkeye defensive tackle A.J. Epenesa said.
“We just didn’t play to our standards today.”
Everyone’s entitled to one so-so performance, but Iowa’s defense didn’t have room for it against this opponent. So at 3-3, Iowa is closer to the bottom of the West than to 6-0 Minnesota.
To a man after the game, Iowa’s players and head coach talked about three games remaining and how they must pick up and proceed forward. What else can you say?
“We need a win next week,” Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz said, and they very well may get it.
Iowa plays Minnesota next, at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes were spoilers at home for 9-0 Michigan in November 2016 and knocked Ohio State out of the College Football Playoff by beating the Buckeyes in November 2017. They now can spoil the Gophers’ perfect season.
Spoiler. You don’t get a trophy for that. You don’t get a trip to Indianapolis to play for the league’s big trophy, either. Being known as a spoiler instead of a champion kind of, well, sucks.
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