MADISON — How many adjectives can accurately describe the performance of the Wisconsin Badgers’ defense on Saturday?
Controlling? As in holding the Iowa Hawkeyes to 66 total yards of offense, the fewest ever allowed to a conference opponent in school history and No. 2 overall only to a 2005 effort against Temple (45 yards)?
Authoritative? With not allowing Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley and his offense to move the chains on third down in 13 attempts while recording four sacks and forcing three turnovers?
Perhaps just flat-out dominant?
All of these words can illustrate what defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard’s unit accomplished in Wisconsin’s 38–14 win over Iowa.
“Credit to the coaches for the plan, and then the players went out and executed it,” head coach Paul Chryst said. “I thought they played with confidence, and obviously put in some tough situations, but they were a lot of fun to watch today. So many different guys stepped up and made plays, and that was a heck of a performance by our defense.”
Iowa came into the game averaging 143.2 yards per game on the ground, but overwhelmed Ohio State last week to the tune of 243 yards.
On Saturday, Wisconsin halted any momentum seen last week with just 25 yards allowed. That’s the fewest allowed against a conference opponent since 2001, when the Badgers constricted Penn State to just 23 yards. All this without key contributors Chris Orr and D’Cota Dixon, who did not play.
“Run game was our biggest priority,” inside linebacker Ryan Connelly said, “and we knew that if we could stop that, make it 2nd-and-long, that’s huge against a team like Iowa who can kind of get in a rhythm once they start running, so stopping the run was definitely a priority for us.”
Running back Akrum Wadley ran for 118 yards on 20 carries against the Buckeyes, but was grounded to just 23 yards on eight carries against the Badgers. James Butler led the Hawkeyes in rushing with only 30 yards on eight rushes.
“In every game, our first goal is to just stop the run,” defensive end Alec James said. “A lot of Big Ten teams like to run the ball, so the first step is to just stop the run and we were able to do that, and then just kind of get after the quarterback.”
Iowa only gained five first downs the entire game, the fewest allowed by Wisconsin to a conference team since at least 1998. Stanley only completed eight of 24 passes for 41 yards and an interception.
Those 41 passing yards are the fewest allowed since Western Kentucky’s 28 back 16 years ago in 2001. Four sacks by five different players contributed to nullifying the Hawkeyes’ aerial attack.
Iowa thrashed Ohio State’s offense last week in gaining 244 yards through the air, with tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson combining for nine catches for 125 yards and four touchdowns.
On Saturday, Wisconsin limited the duo to just one reception on three targets.
“A lot of that was just the front seven getting after him,” said safety Joe Ferguson, who started at strong safety for an injured Dixon. “I mean, the quarterback didn’t have time to let those guys get into their routes and really let it develop.
“You got to give those guys respect but you can’t give up too much respect. You got to go out there and play with the technique you know, and I think ‘Trell [Natrell Jamerson] was challenging the tight ends and I was challenging the tight ends. We just didn’t change anything, just kept our focus at a high level, and it worked out.”
All season, the defense has thrived on stopping opponents after “sudden change” situations where the unit is thrust back onto the field following a turnover or a blocked punt. Two of those opportunities came Wisconsin’s way on Saturday afternoon after its offense coughed up the ball four times.
Again, the Badgers’ defense stonewalled any chance of traction by the Hawkeyes. On those two drives, they allowed just 16 yards on eight plays. For the season, UW has only allowed opponents to convert on six of 17 “sudden change” situations—three touchdowns and three field goals.
“That’s just our mentality, to be honest,” James said. “We have a lot of guys that when we go out there from a turnover, we’re excited to go out there. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, we got to go out there.’ It’s like, ‘Alright, we get another chance to be on the field, another chance to make plays, and we just have fun with it.”
Three Iowa turnovers turned into 21 points for Wisconsin, including seven directly from the defense. If the Hawkeyes could generate two pick-sixes from opportunistic cornerback Josh Jackson, the Badgers surely could muster something.
Iowa, despite having only 14 yards of offense at the time, was within a field goal in the third quarter after forcing Wisconsin to punt. Starting at their own 20-yard line, the Hawkeyes gained a first down, but a miscommunication with a snap on 3rd-and-10 caromed off Stanley and provided the opportunity and breathing room UW needed.
Amidst a pile of players, the ball squirted loose. Outside linebacker Leon Jacobs, without having his knee touch the turf before possessing the ball, scooped it up.
“I went to go pick it up,” said Jacobs, who also recorded four tackles and a sack on the day, “and then I realized no one was around me because no one knew the ball was right there, so I picked it up.”
His ensuing rush toward the end zone resulted in his first collegiate touchdown, the fifth defensive touchdown tallied by the Wisconsin defense this season, and extended the lead to 24–14.
An acrobatic interception by inside linebacker T.J. Edwards stopped Iowa’s longest drive of the game, a mere six-play, 33-yard series at the end of the third quarter. That led Wisconsin to take over at its own 41-yard line and eventually score on Bradrick Shaw’s eight-yard touchdown run early in the fourth.
Lastly, a Stanley fumble credited to Connelly gave Wisconsin prime real estate at the Iowa 14-yard line in the final quarter. An opportunistic offense then capped the scoring for the game when quarterback Alex Hornibrook found wide receiver A.J. Taylor for a five-yard touchdown.
Wisconsin did not allow Iowa to get past UW’s own 47-yard line, as the Hawkeyes merely smelled the whiff of Badgers’ territory on Saturday. That shows just how impressive a performance it was against an offense that racked up 487 yards against Ohio State.
Iowa did not complete a pass longer than 10 yards, a rush no longer than nine, and did not score any offensive touchdowns while averaging only 1.3 yards per play. On a day when everything went right on one side of the ball and a new precedent appeared to be set, the players kept up the heat without stopping to think about their dominance.
“In the moment, we were kind of just like, ‘Let’s just get to that next drive and do our thing again.’ Thinking about the next drive,” Ferguson said. “Every time we’d come out the field, we were like, ‘That was fun. Let’s get to the next drive and do it again.’”
Wisconsin’s defense has been its strength all year with an offense boasting explosiveness yet volatility. Saturday was no different, with four turnovers committed that would have likely squelched hopes of an undefeated season and any hope of a College Football Playoff.
That is, if it wasn’t for a defensive performance many won’t soon forget.
“Everybody had stayed humbled, everybody did their 1/11th, everybody grinded in practice,” senior cornerback Derrick Tindal said, “which is what we’ve been doing every week and it just happened this week to come together.”
Could Wisconsin’s defense become even more ascendant? Just how much better can this unit, which already ranked among the top 10 in the nation in several categories entering the game, get?
“There’s no limit to how good we can get,” Tindal said. “We just got to stick to doing the same thing: stay humble, grind in practice.”