MADISON – A team can only be given so many opportunities to snatch momentum before the chance is lost.
No.19 Wisconsin – awful on offense the entire afternoon – could have salvaged an ugly performance with a non-impressive victory twice in the final eight minutes if they had any semblance of execution.
But as a result of stumbling over themselves, literally, Wisconsin faces another performance full of unanswered questions and an empty trophy case.
“It’s disappointing the way it shaped out for us,” said senior quarterback Joel Stave, the main character in the 10-6 loss to Iowa Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium.
On a day where Iowa (5-0, 1-0 Big Ten) was held to 221 yards of total offense and 27.8 points below their season average, the Badgers – held to their lowest home point total since Sept. 2003 - committed four brutal turnovers, and Stave was at the center of all of them.
There were the two ugly interceptions and two untimely fumbles, the last one coming on Wisconsin’s first trip to the red zone with just under eight minutes remaining. Chipping away at Iowa’s front and getting the ball to the 1-yard line, Stave was stepped on by right guard Micah Kapoi, stumbled on the handoff attempt and fumbled the football.
Tailback Taiwan Deal – the intended target – said after the game there was “no doubt” he would have scored on the play. Instead he missed the opportunity to fall on the football, and Iowa took over on its own 5.
“He’s still got to protect the ball, no matter what the situation is,” said head coach Paul Chryst, referring to Stave. “Those are hard lessons to learn, but we’ve got to protect the football in all areas and we obviously didn’t do that. I think it had a huge part in the result of the game, obviously.”
Wisconsin (3-2, 0-1) had one last ditch effort, successfully forcing a three-and-out with only 31 seconds coming off the clock, and appeared to have some momentum after Reggie Love – playing meaningful reps after Alex Erickson (head) was injured early in the third quarter - caught a 26-yard pass on third-and-7 at the UW 24.
But a curious 3-yard run, an incomplete pass, a 5-yard out route and an incomplete pass to the flat ended UW’s three-game winning streak in the series.
“We were off on quite a bit of things today as a unit,” said senior left tackle Tyler Marz. “We thought we saw good things on film that we thought we could attack. We just didn’t get it done.”
There were other problems, too. Wisconsin’s running game – a week after rushing for 326 yards – was bottled up and limited to 86 yards, with no gains over 11. UW’s offensive line – believed to be starting three redshirt freshman for the first time since the 1998 Outback Bowl – was out of sync the entire game. Kicker Rafael Gaglianone missed a 42-yard try in the second quarter that, if made, would have made the last drive easier for the Badgers.
“It’s tough, just having opportunities we’re just leaving on the table,” said Gaglianone. “It hurts. It doesn’t feel good.”
All the lapses spoiled a tremendous day for Wisconsin’s defense. Iowa’s first five drives in the first half ended in Wisconsin territory, including four in the red zone, so the Badgers trailing 10-3 at halftime was considered a blessing.
Wisconsin even held off a pair of drives inside the 10-yard line, causing a turnover on downs when Iowa’s fourth-and-2 pass attempt from UW’s 8 fell incomplete and seeing Marshall Koehn shank a 27-yard field goal attempt. In the second half, Iowa never advanced past its own 44-yard line.
“With the way they were able to perform and execute, put us in good positions down the stretch, we’ve got to be able to come away with points,” said Stave. “It’s disappointing.”
Only when Wisconsin’s offense started self-destructing did Wisconsin’s defense started to struggle.
After going turnover free the last two nonconference games, Stave turned the ball over on consecutive plays, throwing a telegraphed interception to cornerback Desmond King – his first of two on the day - that was returned to the UW 31 and then getting stripped on a blind-side hit by Drew Ott at the 15.
And while UW allowed a 1-yard touchdown pass following the interception, the first touchdown it allowed in the last 215 minutes, 3 seconds of game time, the Badgers allowed Iowa to gain one yard following the strip. They had no clue that Koehn’s 33-yard field goal going through the uprights would be enough to win.
“We expect ourselves to be in backed up situations,” said linebacker Vince Biegel. “It doesn’t matter what the situation is, we’re going to go out there and perform our best. We didn’t get the job done on defense today. They scored too many points.”
Wisconsin's offense generated 56 yards and 3 points on its first drive, but managed only 87 yards and two turnovers on its next five first-half drives. The second half wasn’t any better with no drives going more than 37 yards.
The loss overshadowed a tremendous day from senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert, who finished with eight tackles, 3.5 for loss, two forced fumbles, one recovery, three sacks and five quarterback hurries. For the season, Schobert has 13 tackles for loss and nine sacks.
But his biggest contribution might have been what he said in the postgame locker room. While Iowa celebrated with the Heartland Trophy, breaking UW’s string of nine straight wins in trophy games, Schobert reminded the group what happened a year ago.
Suffering a similarly disappointing loss at Northwestern to open Big Ten play, UW won its next seven games to win the Big Ten West Division for the second straight season.
Once again, UW will have to grind from behind.
“Everything that we wanted to achieve at the beginning of the year (is) still within our reach,” said Schobert. “Football is a funny game, so you never know what’s going to happen.”