There's no debating this point - Scott Tolzien had his worst game of the season against an Iowa defense that isn't up to its usual high standards. Tolzien numbers were marginal in the first half (8-for-10 for 83 yards and two sacks) with UW trying to establish the run.
They were worse when the Badgers had to pass. Although he was the victim of a couple dropped passes by Nick Toon and Maurice Moore, the junior completed 15-of-25 passes for 143 yards, zero touchdowns and a costly three interceptions.
"I take it all on myself," said Tolzien, as the UW offense has scored one touchdown in the past two games. "We were battling against ourselves the past two weeks, myself included."
On the first pick, Tolzien led receiver David Gilreath too far on second down and cornerback Amari Spievey came up with the first interceptions. Tolzien forced his second interception when he tried to hit Maurice Moore down the middle, but was picked off by A.J. Edds.
Both interceptions came on second down while Tolzien's third pick came in the final minutes with UW down 10, landing again in the arms of Spievey.
"At that point in the game, you have to take shots, but that was still stupid," Tolzien said. "You have to take the checkdown and keep chipping away."
What made the quarterback situation more perilous was the decision by the Wisconsin coaching staff to bring in redshirt freshman Curt Phillips, who hasn't played since week three against Wofford, in for a series immediately after Tolzien led the Badgers on their only scoring drive – an 11-play, 92-yard drive that put UW up 10-0.
UW coach Bret Bielema said he and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst determined early in the week they would let Phillips direct the third series in the first half. Even after the touchdown-scoring drive, the coaches stuck to their plan, a move that backfired when the Badgers went three-and-out in that series and lost all momentum in the process.
From there on out, UW managed just 66 yards of total offense in the final 38 minutes, 9 seconds of the game.
"There was a tremendous amount of growth for him during the last couple weeks to get in and help us win a football game," Bielema said of Phillips. "Unfortunately, he didn't get a first down."
Unfortunately, it was a bad decision all around.
After he injured his right ankle and missed a series, Clay wasn't the same player, as the sophomore running back appeared to be tentative when his number was called. The results showed - he was held to seven yards on his final nine carries – and turned UW into a one-dimensional offense.
When Clay went down, Montee Ball stepped in and filled the void rather well. He carried the ball three times for 15 yards the rest of the drive, including his first collegiate score on a 10-yard sprint around the right end.
But on the six series after Ball's TD run, the Badgers managed one first down and gained 42 yards. Some of that blame goes on the running game for not carrying the momentum through.
If Clay was running tentative, why didn't Ball get a carry after halftime?
Gaze into our crystal ball Wisconsin fans, because this is what UW looks like without Garrett Graham in its offense. Graham suffered a concussion in the second half, did not return and the Badgers suffered because of it.
Only six players caught passes for UW and none went over 40 yards receiving. Drops reared its ugly head in this game – Moore dropped a pass in the end zone (Ball scored on the next play) and Toon dropped a crossing route on third down in the red zone (Philip Welch missed a 38-yard field goal on the next play).
"I've got to catch the ball, that's my job," Toon said. "Scott threw a catchable ball."
UW's longest passing play was the Graham for 21 yards but with him out, Iowa loaded the box, forcing UW's receivers and Tolzien to make plays. They didn't.
UW held its opponent under 100 yards rushing for the fourth consecutive game, but those come against four teams that don't have a legitimate threat at running back. UW will surely be tested in two weeks again when the Badgers face Purdue's Ralph Bolden (599, 4 TDs).
UW senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield continued his strong play with two tackles for loss and a fumble recovery. Schofield, who came into the game leading the nation in TFLs, has nine in his last three games and 16½ for the season. He also forced recovered a fumble that was forced by Chris Borland, giving UW prime field position at the Iowa 25.
"He looked good on film, but he's more impressive in person," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "We had a hard time catching up to his speed. He was extremely disruptive. He's a great football player."
Sophomore J.J. Watt played very good finished with a collegiate-high eight tackles and had four tackles for loss that registered 16 yards for the UW defense. Unfortunately, Watt had an offsides penalty when Iowa faced third-and-4 from the UW 30 on its fourth-quarter field-goal drive, costing UW valuable time.
Eight UW players registered 13 tackles for loss for 51 yards, but UW let Iowa convert 6-of-15 on third down.
"That's something we can't have as a defense," Watt said. "Those third downs conversions really hurt us … and I am responsible for one of those."
Chris Borland was the best player for UW on both sides of the field Saturday. Filling in for the injured Mike Taylor after the second quarter, Borland led with a career-high 10 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a nine-yard sack and a forced fumble.
"For him to go out there and play the game he did today," Bielema said, "he made a lot of plays."
Jae McFadden registered four tackles, but he was called for pass interference on Iowa tight end Tony Moeaki after he fell a step behind chasing the talented receiver down field. It was a moot point, as Moeaki caught the ball anyway; one of his three catches for 55 yards.
Most of the second-half breakdowns came from this group, including the game-changing play. UW was up 10-3 and put in a tough spot after Tolzien's first interception, but were able to pin Iowa into a third-and-7 and the UW 24. The Badgers ran Devin Smith on a cornerback blitz, but he blew outside containment, which allowed Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi to scramble outside and connect with Moeaki, who was able to get behind cornerback Antonio Fenelus, for the score.
"When we have opportunities to make big plays and they don't happen," Bielema said, "it's just not going to work."
Niles Brinkley had a solid game with five solo tackles, but UW had no answer wide receiver Derrell Johnson, who had career-high tying eight catches for 113 yards and a long of 34 … in his first start. That can't happen.
Pushing a field goal attempt wide right has been nothing new this season for Phillip Welch. After going 20 for 24 last season, the coaching staff wanted Welch to find more power on his kickoffs. While Welch has improved in that department, the changes have made him struggle in his field goal attempts, going 6 for 11 entering Saturday's game, with most of his misses being pushed to the right.
While the Badgers have dodged the bullet with Welch's misses, they weren't so lucky against Iowa. Welch's missed 38-yard field goal with 1:42 left in the third quarter, four plays after UW forced a turnover at the Hawkeyes' 25, was undoubtedly costly. Not only did the Badgers have a chance to take a 13-10 lead, Iowa took momentum, going 79 yards to grad a lead it wouldn't relinquish.
"I've got the bye week to figure stuff out," Welch said. "I've been hitting it consistently right. I need to start hitting it consistently middle. I fixed it in practice. I'm really consistent. I didn't miss anything in warm-ups. It might be that I'm speeding up once I get in the game. I just need to figure stuff out."
Chris Borland can kick field goals, but he is so banged up himself that Bielema alluded to considering pulling the redshirt off Alec Lerner if a change is deemed necessary.
"We plan on redshirting him, but if Phil can't come through this, we'll go to our next option," Bielema said.
UW's kickoff coverage is still bad, which could be seen when Iowa returned the opening kickoff 39 yards, and UW needs to find a different kick returner than David Gilreath. Not only did Gilreath not signal for a fair catch with a defender three yards in front of him, getting himself clocked in the process after he looked downfield, he failed to field a punt early in the second quarter with nobody around here. The result was an Iowa bounce that cost UW 18 yards of field position.