By Pat Harty
MADISON, Wis. – Kirk Ferentz was making his opening statement to the media following Saturday’s game at Wisconsin when he singled out his starting kicker and starting punter for their performances.
No disrespect to kickers and punters, but it’s usually not a good sign when they’re the first players mentioned by the head coach during a post-game press conference.
Junior kicker Keith Duncan made three field goals and increased his season total to 22, which is a UI single-season record, while senior Michael Sleep-Dalton averaged 41.2 yards on four punts, with all four of his punts landing inside the Wisconsin 20-yard line.
But it still wasn’t enough as the Badgers stopped Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley on a 2-point conversion late in the fourth quarter to help secure a 24-22 victory before an announced attendance of 78,018 at Camp Randall Stadium.
It was Wisconsin's seventh victory in the last eight games against Iowa.
“I just want to compliment Keith Duncan’ Ferentz said. “I just learned that he set the school record with field goals. He’s done a great job all along this season. He’s just playing extremely well.
“And tip the hat to Michael Sleep-Dalton, too. I thought he punted real well today and gave us a chance, especially in that second half, to stay in the football game. So I thought that was certainly a positive and it was great to see that.”
The best thing Iowa did on Saturday, besides kick field goals and punts, was refuse to quit after the Badgers had expanded their lead to 21-6 late in the third quarter.
It felt like the game was slipping away, especially considering how poorly Iowa had performed on offense up to that point.
But Stanley and his offensive cohorts didn’t welt under the pressure.
They instead outscored Wisconsin 16-3 in the fourth quarter and nearly pulled off an improbable comeback.
However, it just wasn’t meant to be in a season that is starting to resemble last season when Iowa lost four games by a combined 23 points.
Iowa’s record fell to 6-3 overall and 3-3 in the conference, with the three losses coming by a combined 14 points.
“I’m really proud of our guys, the way they fought and competed and stayed in it,” Ferentz said. “There were times when it looked like the game might get away from us, but the guys kept fighting and gave us a chance to win the thing in the fourth quarter. And unfortunately, we came up short. So that’s certainly disappointing, a tough bus ride home for us.
“But I think probably the most important thing right now, you don’t get them back, certainly the most important thing is how we handle the next 24 to 48 hours. Obviously, we’ve got another big challenge coming to us next week and the two weeks after that.”
The challenge waiting for Iowa next Saturday at Kinnick Stadium will be an undefeated Minnesota squad that beat Penn State on Saturday in Minneapolis.
“Last year, it felt like most of our losses were one possession games where if one or two things had gone different, it would have been a different story,” said junior right tackle Tristan Wirfs. “And now our three losses are kind of the same way. It’s not like we’ve gotten blown out or anything.
“It stings knowing that we’re that close. But we’ve got to keep getting back to the basics and the fundamentals, and eventually, we’re going to get one of these close games and push through.”
Stanley rarely shows any emotion after wins or losses, but he seemed to take Saturday’s loss to his home-state Badgers especially hard.
He was so close to tying the score on the 2-point conversion, but fell inches short and took a couple vicious hits while trying to muscle his way into the end zone.
“It was a draw and I was just trying to give it some time to let it develop a little bit,” Stanley said. “The linebacker did a great job of coming up, and unfortunately, we were a yard short.”
A yard short would be a good way to describe Iowa’s season so far.
The red zone continues to be a dead zone for the Iowa offense, which helps to explain why Duncan has made so many field goals this season.
But Saturday’s loss wasn’t just on the offense, considering Wisconsin shredded the vaunted Iowa defense for 300 rushing yards, with junior sensation Jonathan Taylor gaining all but 50 of the yards on the ground.
“We just didn’t play to our standards today,” said Iowa junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa. “
Taylor’s 250 rushing yards are the most ever by a Wisconsin player against Iowa, surpassing the previous record of 216 by Ron Dayne in 1999, which was Kirk Ferentz’s first season as the Iowa head coach.
“Give credit to Wisconsin, they outplayed us,” Ferentz said. “And give credit to Taylor, what an exceptional player he is, and he certainly proved that tonight.”
Iowa’s record fell to 12-12 in conference games with Stanley as the starting quarterback.
He often gets singled out for blame by fans after losses, and Saturday’s gut-wrenching loss was no exception based on the reaction on social media.
Criticism goes with the territory as the starting quarterback, but Stanley can take solace in knowing that his teammates still believe in him and respect him as a leader.
“I don’t even know how to put it into words what he does for this team and what he means to this team,” Wirfs said. “He’s one of our biggest leaders and he’s probably going to feel that it’s all on him.
“And people on the outside, and people on social media are probably going to come at him. But we all know, it’s not just him. It takes 11 guys to play the game, not just one. So we’re going to rally around him.”
The offense rallied around Stanley in the fourth quarter as he threw two touchdown passes to Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr.
Stanley threw a dart to Tracy Jr. over the middle, hitting him in stride for what turned into a 75-yard touchdown catch with 3 minutes, 12 seconds left to play.
“He’s a competitor,” Tracy Jr. said of Stanley. “He’s a true competitor. He never gives up, even when (Wisconsin) had the ball with like a minute left, he was still saying we had a chance.”
Tracy's touchdown cut the deficit to two points, but the Iowa defense failed to stop Wisconsin from running out the clock.
Taylor broke loose for a 42-yard gain to the Iowa 23 and that was pretty much it as the Badgers would go on to run out the clock.
"He's a great running back," Epenesa said of Taylor. "He doeesn't run into gaps foolishly. He's able to see things happen before they happen and make smart decisions.
"And that's what he did tonight. And we knew that was going to happen. And we didn't tackle well, either."
Iowa’s performance on offense in the first half was sort of a microcosm of the season in that there were some bright spots, including Wisconsin native Toren Young rushing for 45 yards, but there just weren’t enough bright spots.
Iowa continued its season-long struggle in the red zone where too many times it has had to settle for field goals rather than touchdowns.
That happened twice in the first half as two drives stalled in the red zone and ended with Duncan making field goals from 24 and 40 yards, respectively.
Saturday’s loss all but eliminated Iowa from the Big Ten West Division race, but there still are three games left in the regular season and a bowl game.
The challenge is to get over what happened on Saturday and not let it linger and turn into another loss.
“It’s definitely tough, it hurts,” said Young, who grew up just minutes from the Wisconsin campus in Madison. “We put in so much work and so much preparation for these (games). You want to come out and win, and we weren’t able to that.
“It hurts, but we have another big game next week. So we’re going to get on this film and look forward to the next opportunity.”
Iowa 3 3 0 16 – 22
Wisconsin 0 14 7 3 – 24
I – Keith Duncan 24 FG
W – Danny Davis 17 run (Collin Larsh kick)
I – Duncan 40 FG
W – Danny Davis 4 pass from Jack Coan (Larsh kick)
I – Duncan 39 FG
W – Larsh 29 FG
I – Tyrone Tracy Jr. 75 pass from Nate Stanley (Duncan kick)