MADISON, Wis. — In a game of inches, Iowa came up short Saturday.
From Nate Stanley being stopped just shy of the goal line on a late-game two-point conversion try to the inability of the defense to fully wrap its arms around the challenge presented by Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, the Hawkeyes came up short in the biggest Big Ten game of the season.
The 16th-ranked Badgers held on for a 24-22 victory, the fourth straight year Wisconsin has won the Heartland Trophy and a setback which dropped the Hawkeyes three games behind Big Ten West Division leader Minnesota with three games remaining on the regular-season schedule.
“It’s a tough one to take,’’ Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “There was a lot riding on this game and we didn’t get it done. That’s on all of us. We didn’t do enough to come out of here with a win. It’s going to be a long bus ride home.’’
The 18th-ranked Hawkeyes had plenty to ponder on their way back to Iowa City.
Iowa’s offense struggled throughout the first three quarters, spotting the Badgers a 21-6 lead before finding some offensive rhythm with an up-tempo approach on offense which allowed the Hawkeyes to rally late.
Stanley, who completed just four of his first 10 passes, completed 13 of his final 18, to lead Iowa to pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns.
He hit Nico Ragaini with a 3-yard scoring strike in the opening minute of the fourth quarter, and then found Tyrone Tracy open for a 75-yard touchdown pass with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining in the game.
“They shifted their defense and the play, it was there,’’ Tracy said. “Nate knew it. I knew it. He threw a great ball. I caught it. I looked up, saw myself on the big screen (video board) and saw nothing but grass. It was time to make something electric happen.’’
Tracy’s touchdown did just that, pulling Iowa within a 24-22 score.
Then Wisconsin pulled the plug.
Iowa called a draw play for the two-point conversion, putting the ball in the hands of its senior quarterback and Wisconsin native.
Stanley took the snap, waited as his blockers set up and bolted for the goal line.
He was met inches shy of his objective by a wall of Wisconsin defenders, denied the memory of a lifetime.
“I felt like it was there. The line did a good job. The linebacker came in and made a good play,’’ Stanley said. “It was a good call, the right call. It was something we installed on Tuesday and we knew it would be our play if we needed a two-point conversion. We just came up short.’’
Taylor made certain the Hawkeyes never got another chance.
On the ensuing series, the Wisconsin junior carried twice for a total of 10 yards and a first down, then busted through the heart of the Hawkeye defense for a 42-yard gain that finished off a 31-carry, 250-yard performance and positioned the Badgers to run out the clock.
“We didn’t do a good job of tackling,’’ Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa said, “but he’s an awfully good back. He sees plays before they happen, makes smart decisions and we didn’t tackle well. He left us with a lot of things we have to fix.’’
Taylor was the first back to rush for more than 200 yards against the Hawkeye defense since Saquon Barkley of Penn State ran for 211 in 2017 and he is the only back to run for 250 against Iowa since at least 2000, when Michigan State’s T.J. Duckett ran for 248 yards against the Hawkeyes.
“We couldn’t get off the field, and he had a lot to do with that,’’ defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore said. “He made it tough for us all day.’’
Iowa made it tough on itself early.
Wisconsin presented Iowa with an early opportunity when Epenesa stripped the ball away from quarterback Jack Coan and Lattimore recovered the fumble at the Wisconsin 16-yard line.
A pair of incomplete passes kept Iowa out of the end zone and forced the Hawkeyes to settle for the first of three Keith Duncan field goals in the game, a 24-yard kick with 7:38 left in the first quarter that sent Iowa into the second quarter with a 3-0 lead.
Wisconsin, on its way to building a nearly 15-minute edge in possession time, put the ball in Taylor’s hands early and often as it worked the clock on its way to a pair of scores in the second quarter by Danny Davis and a 14-6 halftime lead.
Taylor positioned Wisconsin for both of its scores, running 17 times for gains of 107 yards in the opening two quarters.
“We were hoping to play better run defense, but Taylor is an elite football player and they use him really well,’’ Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He stays patient and is a really tough guy to bring down.’’
Davis put the Badgers (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) ahead to stay on a 17-yard carry with 9:44 to play in the half and later followed a 40-yard Duncan field goal by catching a 4-yard touchdown pass from Coan, who completed 16-of-25 passes for 173 yards.
The first touchdown scored by Davis came off a possession that followed the only turnover of the game by Iowa (6-3, 3-3).
Stanley struggled to get his hands around a snap and the Badgers’ Jack Sanborn recovered at the Wisconsin 41-yard line. Taylor toted the ball over midfield, running for 15 yards on the first three plays of the go-ahead drive.
“We won the turnover battle (2-1) but they made the one they got count,’’ Ferentz said. “In a game like this, those type of things tend to be big.’’