In their thrilling 28-17 win over the Iowa Hawkeyes, the Badgers saved their Big Ten title hopes with smart coaching and veteran leadership late in the game.
Before the last eight minutes of the fourth quarter, the Badgers and Hawkeyes weren’t separated by much in the trenches or on the scoreboard. Until that point, Iowa’s offensive line got a bigger push and Wisconsin’s offense struggled to maintain drives.
Wisconsin’s defense struggled for much of the night to slow the Iowa rushing attack, which forced defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard to switch from his base 3-4 to almost a 5-2 or 5-3 with a safety rolled down. Despite this commitment to stopping the run, on many plays Badger defensive tackles Olive Sagapolu and Bryson Williams gave up almost a three or four-yard push, which made it easy for the Hawkeyes to get big gains up the middle.
Late in the game, Leonhard’s defense stepped up with two critical stops and smart defensive schemes that forced Hawkeye mistakes and allowed the offense to deliver. Down three late in the fourth, Leonhard rushed four on third-and-five. With no pass rush, Stanley stood tall in the pocket for nearly four seconds, allowing routes to develop for an easy 22-yard gain.
The Badgers forced another third-and-five on the ensuing set of drives. Instead of sitting back and allowing Stanley to pick apart the secondary again, Jim Leonhard brought senior linebacker Ryan Connelly off the edge. Connelly got a free release on the quarterback, which gave Stanley only 1.5 seconds to throw and forced him into a crucial throwaway to end the drive.
The Hawkeyes were forced to punt and the Badgers got the ball back at their own 12 with more than five minutes to go.
On this drive, Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s lack of adjustments lost the Hawkeyes the game.
Looking to contain any possible big plays, Parker dropped any aggressiveness from his defensive scheme, which allowed the Badgers to do just about whatever they wanted. The Hawkeyes ran a soft zone coverage that failed to challenge Wisconsin at all and allowed the Badgers to complete quick passes underneath to get themselves out of their own territory.
There was too much time left on the clock to just allow consecutive gains of over five or six yards--especially when the Hawkeyes only had a three-point lead.
The Hawkeyes rushed only four down linemen almost the entire drive and put no pressure on quarterback Alex Hornibrook. Facing a quarterback with well-documented struggles under pressure — Hornibrook ranked 31st in NFL passer rating among FBS quarterbacks when kept clean last year, but 91st when facing pressure according to Pro Football Focus College — Iowa chose to sit back and let their defense get progressively picked apart.
However, credit Wisconsin’s offensive line for making Hornibrook’s job much easier; on his game-winning touchdown pass, Hornibrook had no defenders threatening him and was able to set his feet and make a perfect throw. With the clean pocket on the final drive, Hornibrook was calm in a crucial situation and made smart plays.
Because Iowa’s passive defense kept the clock moving, the Hawkeyes only had 57 seconds to drive the length of the field and win the game after Hornibrook found receiver AJ Taylor for the dagger.
Leonhard, unlike Parker, made an active effort to mix his blitz packages and show different looks on his final defensive drive. On TJ Edwards’ game-sealing interception, what looked like a lucky drop by Iowa receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the product of a brilliant defensive call.
The Badgers crowded the line with seven players in total: three down linemen, two linebackers in the A-gaps and two overhangs on the edge.
Because Wisconsin mixed their blitz packages throughout the game, Iowa’s offensive linemen didn’t know where the pressure was going to come from. Offensive linemen are taught to protect from the inside first when they see blitzers. Trying to account for the expected pressure, Iowa right tackle Tristan Wirf first stepped inside — but the three Badger linebackers on the line of scrimmage dropped back into pass coverage and no extra pressure came up the middle. Because Wirf’s initial step was inside, Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun got a free release and immediate pressure on Stanley.
This gave Stanley just 1.3 seconds to get rid of the ball or be crushed. He had to rush and threw the ball too hard at receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who tipped the pass up and into the waiting arms of Edwards to seal the game and cue the celebrations.