“It’s really disappointing...it hurts to lose. There’s no getting around it.” - Kirk Ferentz (post game interview)
Two feet, two points, or two lightyears, however you choose to measure, it was all too little as the Iowa Hawkeyes once again fall to the Wisconsin Badgers. After the Hawkeyes struck big with just over three minutes remaining as Nate Stanley connected with Tyrone Tracy Jr. for a 75 yard touchdown pass to bring them within two, Iowa was faced with a 2-point conversion attempt to tie the game at 24.
*Did that catch remind anyone else of this? (sorry for the reminder of the heartbreak of this game too)
Iowa had installed their plan for a 2-point conversion on Tuesday. The plan, QB draw for their 6’4” 240 pound senior signal caller. The offense lined up in shotgun with Mekhi Sargent to Stanley’s right, Nico Ragaini the lone receiver on the left, and TE Shaun Beyer, and WRs Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Tyrone Tracy Jr to the right. The spread out formation gave Stanley six down blockers and Sargent as his personal protector. Wisconsin countered with three down lineman, one stand up outside linebacker, and two middle linebackers in the box. Both safeties were outside of the box slightly due to formation.
During the post-game interviews, Wisconsin players admitted they hadn’t prepared for quarterback draw during the week. The play surprised their linebackers who were dropping into coverage. As you will see from the video, it was open and Sargent was going to make the lead block. Unfortunately for Iowa, the Umpire stepped up and into the running and blocking lane. Sargent stutters after seeing him and runs into him as he is going to block. Stanley is stopped about two feet short of the end zone.
3 < 7
It didn’t seem like it, but Iowa scored on half of their possessions. Discounting the possession at the end of the first half that was one play to take-a-knee, Iowa scored on five of the ten possessions (two touchdowns and three field goals). The other possessions ended with four punts and a fumble. Iowa continues to have issues with converting scoring opportunities with touchdowns.
Early in the game, Iowa was set up with prime field position following a strip sack by A.J. Epenesa. He continues to generate great pressure numbers, but here finally got home to create a big turnover. This is a tremendous moves as he does a short show of his hands, which then allows him to swat the lineman’s hands down before he can punch. They even tried to chip with the tight end, but it was all ineffective. This is where sometimes individual player skill beats scheming.
Following the change in possession, Iowa went with a similar concept to the first play of the game, where they slid a player behind the formation following a play action. That play was it was Tracy, who was open immediately and would have picked up some yardage, but Stanley held the ball looking for the primary target, Smith-Marsette. Iowa was able to draw an obvious defensive holding penalty as Smith-Marsette was essentially tackled in the end zone (one of the three defensive flags he drew during the game). This sets Iowa up with a 1st and Goal right away.
These are the scenarios that have plagued the offense all season. On 2nd down, Iowa sent Tracy, Sam LaPorta, and Beyer all on crossing routes. Wisconsin only rushed three thought and by dropping eight defenders were able to clog up all three routes. Stanley had time to wait for Smith-Marsette as he came across the back of the end zone but he was blanketed as well.
Following that, Iowa had the right call on 3rd down, and had Tracy coming open across the middle of the field, but pressure forced Stanley to throw the ball through the back of the end zone. Wisconsin brought all three linebackers on a blitz up the middle. The fourth linebacker, outside, started to rush and then picked up the running back, Tyler Goodson, coming out of the backfield. This leads to man coverage for all of those in route.
Initially, the defensive back gets a strong jam on Tracy, but he is able to quickly fight through it and explode across the field. The line picks up the blitzes well at first, but redshirt freshman center Tyler Linderbaum allowed the defensive tackle to get his hands on his shoulder pads. With a quick extension and throw, he tosses Linderbaum and gets interior pressure. Stanley is not able to see Tracy coming open and Iowa is forced to settle for a field goal attempt.
Later in the half, Iowa enters into the scoring zone following a terrific run by Goodson. This was similar to a play against Northwestern where the defense brings a defensive back on a blitz. Goodson, running from a deep shotgun formation, sees the blitz and cuts back underneath that man for a big gain. He shows great vision here to cut the play back against the two flow of two blockers pulling to the left. Both inside linebackers follow Schott and Beyer, who are pulling, leaving a gaping cutback lane. One thing that has stood out all season is how Goodson does a great job of securing the ball and finishing with power down field.
Following a two yard loss on a run, Iowa goes with action you are seeing a lot in the NFL currently. In shotgun, Stanley is flanked by both Sargent and Goodson. Goodson goes in sprint motion to the left as Iowa is setting up a screen to Sargent back to the right. Wisconsin’s linebackers show much better discipline here not chasing Goodson’s action. Even without the pressure, those linebackers were going to end this play before Sargent would have been able to gain any yardage.
Iowa is able to pick up nice yardage on a 3rd down run, but it isn’t enough and once again it’s three points instead of seven.
Once again, Iowa has reached Wisconsin territory. This time, they face 3rd down and 4. A first down likely leads to points. Similarly to a previous 3rd down, Iowa is looking to Tracy who is running a quick route and is open. However, once again it is interior pressure that forces a high throw and an incompletion. Mark Kallenberger, making his first career start at left guard, got caught helping to the inside and was not able to pick up the blitzing linebacker quick enough back to his outside shoulder. If he’s able to reroute that defender at all, Stanley would have been able to deliver this pass putting Iowa inside Wisconsin’s 35 yard line. Not only is Iowa held without scoring a touchdown, but they are forced to punt as well.
Overall, the offensive line was able to get some push with the running game and kept Stanley to only being sacked once (Ohio State’s Justin Fields was sacked five times by this same Badger defense), but it was interior pressure like this that kept Iowa from scoring additional points on multiple occasion.
When Stanley was given time on those passing situations, he was able to find the open receiver and deliver on a few fastballs (including a huge 3rd down pass in the 4th quarter).
Tracy continues to impress in increased roll
In the two games since top target Brandon Smith went out with an injury, Tracy has made big plays while filling in as the X-Receiver. Beyond the 75 yard touchdown catch shown earlier, and also his earlier routes where he was able to break coverage, he shows his ability to create yardage once the ball is in his hand. Tracy has 206.5 yards after catch this season to lead the Hawkeyes and gains nearly half of his 19.8 yards per catch after making the catch. He has displayed his short space quickness and strength that allowed him to have over 1000 yards both rushing and receiving as a high school senior.
He shows his versatility on a wheel route, WR screen, quick hitch, and crossing route. He has two receiving touchdowns in those two games and Iowa will be well served to find additional ways to make the defense defend, and tackle, Tracy in open space.
This Badger defense has caused a lot of havoc for teams this season, but Iowa was able to put itself in positions on multiple occasions. Those opportunities don’t matter though unless you convert a few more of them into touchdowns. Iowa has faced three defenses that are all ranked in the top 11 nationally, but that is life in the Big Ten and you better find ways to score when the opportunity presents itself. Going forward, it seems as though Smith will continue to miss the next game or two so Tracy will likely continue to see his targets grow. On a better note, the return of offensive guard Kyler Schott seemed to improve the line play right away. As most players returning from injury, I would expect his play to be even better next week.