Posted by Adam Jacobi
This was more than a football game; this was a 12-round heavyweight slugfight, one befitting a spot in the Rocky series. Wisconsin won this fight, 31-30, and the one-point margin only underscores how closely matched Iowa and the Badgers were. But in the end, this was about Wisconsin going that extra inch to get its win -- and the Heartland Trophy.
Just ask J.J. Watt , the Badgers' standout DE, and defensive hero for the second straight week. In the first quarter, Watt swung the momentum of the game by blocking an Iowa extra point and keeping the game at 6-3. After 52 more points scored in the rest of the game, that one single point would prove to be the margin of victory.
"I've always told my defense that to me, the truest test of what a defense is all about is how they play PAT, because any time you're on the field and it's a PAT situation, it means that you were just scored upon, and how are you going to react?" Bret Bielema said. "The reaction was unbelievable and ends up being the difference in the game."
That blocked PAT wouldn't have been of much significance if Montee Ball hadn't stretched across the goal line by three inches with about a minute left, and Ball probably wouldn't have been able to score that touchdown without a crucial fake punt call on fourth and 4 from Wisconsin's own 26. With everyone on Iowa's punt return team playing for the return, Badgers punter Brad Nortman streaked up the middle of the field for 17 yards. Afterwards, Nortman and Bielema confirmed that it was the coaches' call to fake it from the start.
"It was all the coaches, all the coaches," Nortman said. "When I got the snap, I saw the wide-open field, a couple blockers in front of me, and I just ran. Once I got down the field, I knew it was a great call."
Watt also came through in the fourth quarter. With Iowa holding a first down near midfield with 35 seconds left, Watt finally broke through for the Badgers' first sack of the game, dropping quarterback Ricky Stanzi for a loss of 11 yards, running nine seconds off, and forcing the Hawkeyes to burn a timeout. And sure enough, Iowa's drive ended on the Badgers' 35-yard line, running out of time just outside of field-goal range because the Hawkeyes had burned their last timeout.
After the game, Watt wore his battle scars proudly, the bridge of his nose still freshly bleeding, as he reflected happily on what he considers the high point of Wisconsin's season so far.
"I really think it tops last week," Watt told reporters. "We had so many guys banged up, we're here in a tough environment against a tough team; to come here and do what we did is so unbelievable and a testament to our team."
Watt admitted that with a bye week coming up next, he's going to savor this Badger win that puts them in a dominant second-place position behind the still-unbeaten Michigan State Spartans.
"I'm going to take this one in, and I'm going to take [last week's win against] Ohio State in, because we didn't really have much time to take Ohio State in," Watt said. "I'm going to take a day or two here, watch the game films, and just let it sink in, but then after that we're going to come right back and start focusing on the last four games of the season."
Of course, with such a close final margin, the losing team usually has plenty to rue afterwards, and for the Hawkeyes, today will be no exception. Aside from the blocked extra point and fake punt given up, Iowa placeholder Ryan Donahue fumbled the snap on a 30-yard field goal in the second quarter, costing his team a shot at three points.
Further, and perhaps worse, the Iowa endgame clock management will be under close scrutiny from fans and coaches alike. With the Hawkeyes facing a fourth and 1 at Wisconsin's 42-yard line, Stanzi ran a keeper for the first down, then let three seconds run off the clock while signaling a spike before calling Iowa's last timeout with 13 seconds remaining -- a call that, minus the few wasted seconds, Ferentz later said was their plan all along. Alas, the next play was a pass to tailback Adam Robinson in the flat, and when Robinson was tackled inbounds without Iowa being able to stop the clock, well, that was that.
Perhaps it would have been preferable for Iowa and its fans if the Hawkeyes had lost by 10, and if they'd never been so close to attempting a game-winning field goal. But such is the emotional cruelty of college football. If it's any consolation to the Hawkeyes -- and probably scant, at that -- it's that Iowa isn't the first team to lose by the skin of its teeth to the Badgers. Recall that back in September, Wisconsin dispatched Arizona State 20-19 by blocking a tying PAT, and also stopped a potential kick return for a touchdown at the Wisconsin 1-yard line to end the first half in that game.
Again, yes, it's scant consolation for Iowa, but anything would be after such a devastating loss -- one where the Hawkeyes seemed just inches away from victory.