Wisconsin defeated ninth-ranked Iowa 27-7 on Saturday, improving to 5-3 on the season and extending its winning streak to four games.
The Badger defense turned in yet another dominant performance, holding the Hawkeyes to 156 yards of offense, all but 17 of which came in the second half once Wisconsin had built a sizable lead. The unit entered the week having allowed the fewest yards per game (223) in the Big 10 and it feasted against a lowly Iowa offense.
Wisconsin opened the scoring with 3:08 remaining in the first quarter, capping off an eight-play drive with a four-yard Jake Ferguson touchdown. The tight end was wide open in the back of the end zone after a play-action fake, but a late throw from quarterback Graham Mertz forced Ferguson to adjust and make a toe-tapping grab. On the drive, Mertz completed five passes to five different receivers, an impressive sequence for the much-maligned quarterback.
Leading 10-0 in the second quarter, the Badgers failed to score after recovering a fumble at Iowa’s eight-yard line, as fullback John Chenal couldn’t reach the goal line on a fourth down run from the one.
Another Iowa fumble put Wisconsin back in the same spot, though, and Mertz made it 17-0 on a quarterback sneak. The next Wisconsin possession ended in a punt, but Iowa coughed up yet another fumble on the return and put the Badgers in position for a field goal.
The Badgers led 20-0 at halftime, although the game was closer than it should have been. Iowa didn’t pick up a first down until its final possession of the second quarter, and Wisconsin had 192 total yards to Iowa’s 17. Along with the three takeaways, Wisconsin’s defense had also sacked quarterback Spencer Petras four times.
Iowa got on the board with a Petras sneak with 8:21 remaining in the third quarter, then got the ball back with all the momentum after a Wisconsin three-and-out. The Hawkeyes went for it on 4th and 1 at Wisconsin’s 40, but a defensive stand and a questionable spot gave the Badgers the ball and halted Iowa’s comeback efforts.
Mertz scored on another QB sneak early in the fourth quarter to extend the lead to 27-7 and essentially secure the victory.
The Hawkeyes entered the matchup with the Big 10’s 13th-ranked offense, having managed only 310.9 yards per game, and they looked completely hapless against Wisconsin’s physical and hyper-aggressive defense.
Wisconsin’s defense was led by the usual suspects Saturday. Linebackers Leo Chenal and Jack Sanborn recorded nine and seven total tackles, respectively, and each accounted for half a sack. Linebacker Nick Herbig had 2.5 sacks along with six total tackles.
Offensively, the Badgers looked impressively balanced early but reverted to their typical, run-heavy approach once Mertz’s initial success faded. The sophomore quarterback started 7-for-8 for 68 yards and a touchdown but ultimately completed 11 of 22 for 104 yards. He found success on quick, low-risk throws to wide receiver Danny Davis, who tallied five catches for 59 yards. As the afternoon progressed, though, Mertz grew increasingly erratic.
Running back Braelon Allen was excellent once again, totaling 104 yards on 20 carries for his fourth consecutive 100-plus yard performance. His development into Wisconsin’s best running back has coincided with the team’s turnaround after starting 1-3, and it seems he does something special every time he touches the ball. The 6’2”, 238-pound freshman has displayed patience and agility rarely associated with such a big ballcarrier while also using his size and physicality to fight for extra yards.
It was a quiet showing for running back Chez Mellusi, who totaled only 48 yards on 19 attempts. He leads the team by a wide margin with his 158 carries this season, but opportunities figure to be more scarce going forward as long as Allen remains healthy and productive.
The Badgers suffered a couple notable injuries in the victory. Sanborn dislocated a finger in the third quarter, but he returned to the field later on and should be fine next week. Backup tight end Clay Cundiff suffered a serious-looking right leg injury and was removed from the field by ambulance. He figures to miss considerable time.
This felt like a lost season after Wisconsin started 1-3. Now, though, the Badgers will win the Big 10 West if they beat Rutgers, Northwestern, Nebraska and Minnesota. It’s been evident all year that Wisconsin’s defense can carry the team. Mertz and the offense don’t need to be great, they just need to be competent and avoid turnovers to give the Badgers a great chance of winning each week.
Wisconsin has been unranked since losing to Notre Dame, but they’ve absolutely played like a top-25 team during the win streak and should find themselves in Tuesday’s College Football Playoff rankings after Saturday’s upset of Iowa.
Next Saturday the Badgers head to Rutgers to face the 4-4 Scarlet Knights, who just beat Illinois 20-14. The game’s start time has yet to be announced.