On Saturday afternoon, right around the kickoff of Wisconsin-Iowa, Purdue completed a 31-24 upset of the 21st-ranked, division-leading Illinois.
Suddenly, a window of opportunity had swung open for the Badgers, despite having struggled through their worst season in years, to win the Big Ten West — with Illinois a heavy underdog at undefeated Michigan next Saturday, three more wins would likely give Wisconsin the division title.
The Badgers declined that opportunity, slamming that window shut with a uniquely horrible offensive performance.
With timely takeaways and special teams excellence, Iowa managed a 24-10 win despite gaining just 146 total yards on offense. Now, the Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3) have a path to a second straight division title while Wisconsin (5-5, 3-4) must marinate in the latest of many 2022 disappointments.
Wisconsin scored the first quarter’s only points — a Nate Van Zelst field goal — after the pass rush ended Iowa’s second possession with a strip sack.
Poor pass protection and strong run defense prevented either offense from getting anything going, and the teams traded punts for much of the quarter.
Then, on second-and-8 from Wisconsin’s 29, Graham Mertz floated an abhorrent pass in the direction of Skyler Bell, which defensive back Cooper DeJean took back for an easy pick six. Suddenly, the Badgers trailed 14-3 and, with nothing working for their offense, were in big trouble.
With the half winding down, Wisconsin orchestrated its only touchdown drive of the afternoon. It wasn’t pretty, with two sacks and an illegal motion penalty creating long-yardage situations, but on 3rd-and-18 from midfield, Mertz took advantage of a blown coverage and hit Keontez Lewis for a touchdown.
The blocked punt and interception return allowed Iowa, with 64 total yards on offense and quarterback Spencer Petras having taken four sacks, to lead 14-10 at halftime.
Mertz threw his second interception to open the second half. Immediately following a personal foul on left tackle Jack Nelson, the Badgers faced second-and-17 and Mertz underthrew a deep ball to a well-covered Bell. Cornerback Riley Moss snagged it after a deflection.
The rest of the third quarter featured six punts, four three-and-outs and two first downs between the two teams.
Iowa’s special teams struck again on the sixth of those punts. DeJean, who had downed a punt at the one-yard line a few minutes prior, returned another 41 yards to Wisconsin’s 18. It was a fantastic all-around performance by the sophomore, as he also tallied 10 tackles (seven solo) and the pick-six.
Petras ran in a one-yard touchdown five plays later, extending the Hawkeyes’ lead to 11 points once again.
Things never clicked for the Wisconsin offense, which finished the game with a punt (the ninth of the game), a turnover on downs and a Mertz fumble.
A new low
Iowa’s offense averaged 21 yards on its three scoring drives. Turnovers and deficiencies in the punt game allowed the home team to score 24 points without anything resembling production on offense.
Petras threw for 94 yards and 4.1 per attempt with a lost fumble. Running back Kaleb Johnson, the offensive catalyst for Iowa in recent weeks, carried 22 times for a meager 57 yards.
The Badger pass rush continued its late-season surge with six total sacks. Linebacker Nick Herbig was unblockable, especially in the first half. Third-down sacks lose their shine, however, when the defense will inevitably return to the field a few minutes later.
Iowa’s reputably strong defense effectively silenced Wisconsin’s ground attack, holding Braelon Allen and Isaac Guerendo to a combined 68 yards on 24 attempts (2.8 per). Senior linebacker Jack Campbell manned the center of the defense admirably — his 11 tackles and impressive mobility for a 6-foot-5-inch frame made a huge difference.
Jet sweeps, mainly with Bell, have provided a nice spark to the Badger offense of late, so it’s worth questioning why they didn’t try any to get the running game going.
Tasked with leading the offense through the air, Mertz played as poorly as we’ve seen. He completed 16 of 35 attempts for 176 yards, two interceptions and a fumble. Take away the 51-yard touchdown to Lewis, which was solely the product of a lapse in coverage, and those numbers are even uglier.
Many of his 19 incompletions were nowhere close to a receiver. Games like these, when the sidelines appear a mile away, highlight the lack of pass-catching tight ends in Wisconsin’s offense. Clay Cundiff is done for the season with a leg injury, and neither Hayden Rucci nor Jack Eschenbach have contributed anything as receivers.
The Badger offensive line struggled as well, yielding four sacks on the day. Even so, Mertz deserves more scrutiny than his pass protection.
Saturday was eerily reminiscent of the Minnesota game last year, when Wisconsin could have won the Big Ten West with a victory. Both last year and this, the rest of the division paved a path for the slow-starting Badgers to walk through, but Wisconsin continues to stumble when it matters most.
Unlike 2021, however, this defeat carries no feelings of “what could have been.” A Big Ten Championship versus Ohio State or Michigan would have gone disastrously for these Badgers. Iowa, with two more wins and an Illinois loss next week, would earn a trip to Indianapolis to face one of those Big Ten East titans.
Wisconsin, 1-3 away from Camp Randall Stadium, plays one more road game at Nebraska next Saturday morning.