Field position isn’t a sexy stat, but it makes all the difference in a tight game where neither offense can consistently sustain long scoring drives.
Lost in the defensive dominance and late offensive push by the No. 6 Wisconsin Badgers (7-0 Big Ten, 10-0 overall) was a redemption story for sophomore punter Anthony Lotti, who repeatedly flipped the field in UW's 38-14 win over the No. 25 Iowa Hawkeyes (3-4, 6-4).
He struggled with some poor kicks two weeks ago against Illinois and then lost reps to sophomore Connor Allen against Indiana. Back home versus Iowa, Lotti bounced back, averaging 43.6 yards on five punts that had a ripple effect felt on both the offense and defense.
“I shanked that one Aussie [punt], and I think that really put me back. I had a rough week that week, and then Connor [Allen] took over, and he really did a good job,” Lotti said. “I just put my head down and went to work. I just attacked every punt and just went after it and struck with confidence, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to let that happen again.’”
Three of Lotti’s five punts this week were downed inside the 10-yard line. His first one, early in the second quarter, bounced and rolled 59 yards down to Iowa’s seven. His second one made it 62 yards, down to the eight.
“When you put them inside the 10, you see good things happen out of it,” Lotti said. “Nothing feels better as a punter.”
Both of those kicks were followed by three-and-outs from the Badgers’ defense, and both of those three-and-outs led to touchdowns by the Wisconsin offense on the following drives — their only scoring in a tense first half.
“You saw Lotti kept us in good field position all day, just an absolute beast of a performance by him,” senior safety Joe Ferguson said. “We’re all happy for him. We knew he could do it.”
Two first-quarter interceptions by redshirt sophomore quarterback Alex Hornibrook led to seven points for the Hawkeyes and frustration for the Badgers, but Lotti’s punts made it that much more difficult for Iowa to respond and that much easier for Wisconsin’s defense to hold strong.
“Field position is huge against Big Ten teams, especially Iowa, when you know it’s going to be a close game like that,” redshirt junior linebacker Ryan Connolly said. “I don’t get to watch him punt because I’m blocking [for him], but it’s nice when the ball is flying and hanging in the air for a while, and you see the fair catch.”
Iowa’s average starting field position in the first quarter was its own 11-yard line. By the end of the game, that average was only up to their own 20.
Of course, the UW defense still had to do its part and not allow the Hawkeyes to flip the field and at least back up the Badgers’ offense. Iowa’s offense was only able to cross into Wisconsin territory twice, never getting past the 45-yard line.
That, in turn, set up Hornibrook and the offense with great field position. Both of its drives in the fourth quarter started across midfield, and its average starting position in the game was its own 39-yard line.
“I think you get into kind of a different mindset when you have better field position, like you don’t have to work as hard maybe, but hats off to our defense,” redshirt junior guard Beau Benzschawel said. “They showed out today and really helped us be successful on offense.”
Behind that great field position and behind that great defense was Lotti, the unsung hero who helped set his teammates up for success throughout the game.
The punter doesn’t usually make the headlines, but he actually prefers it that way.
“That’s kind of the best way to be,” Lotti said. “Specialists only get talked about when they messed up. Nobody’s talking about us, so I guess that’s a good thing.”