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Leistikow: Like in 2004, stingy defense against Badgers puts celebratory touch on Iowa's season


Chad Leistikow   | Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It had been 16 years since Iowa finished a football regular season at home against Wisconsin, the first year the Heartland Trophy was introduced as a symbol of the border rivalry waged since 1894.

And on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, the Hawkeyes did the best to make sure history repeated itself.

A suffocating defense stepped up time and time again and was boosted by a big-play offense to secure a 28-7 win against the Badgers.

The score and fashion of the win was practically a carbon copy of the Hawkeyes’ 30-7 victory against Barry Alvarez’s Badgers back in 2004 here at Kinnick.

It was a tight game broken open by a long touchdown pass from Drew Tate to Clinton Solomon, then finished off by a defense that wouldn’t relent. Iowa held Wisconsin, a top-20 team, to 186 total yards that day in an impressive final Kinnick act. After that game, Iowa’s celebration was focused on the Big Ten co-championship it had clinched, not the inaugural Heartland Trophy. Kirk Ferentz, in his sixth year, even made a speech to the Kinnick crowd — many of whom stormed the field.

Saturday’s game didn’t have a full stadium, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and it didn’t have a Big Ten trophy.

But it did have long completions to Ihmir Smith-Marsette — including a 53-yarder that shot the lead to 21-7 late in the third quarter – to break the game open. And, also like 2004, it had a smothering defensive performance (Wisconsin gained just 225 yards on 71 plays), followed by an emotional celebration.

On the field, Iowa players danced to “Jump Around” — a tune Wisconsin is known for at Camp Randall Stadium — and made snow angels to celebrate their first win against the Badgers at Kinnick since 2008.

Inside the locker room, team video showed Kirk Ferentz becoming speechless as he tried to give a speech — and a locker room of excited players broke the choked-up silence with a thunderous, prolonged roar.

“The celebration was ecstatic,” running back Tyler Goodson said. “Coach Ferentz crying made it better.”

Players like seeing Ferentz’s emotional side poke out after wins.

“He gets emotional, because he knows we put the effort in,” defensive back Dane Belton said. “We earned this. It wasn’t just given to us.”

No question about that.

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There were three instances, in particular, that put the Iowa defense in a critical spot, when the game could have been turned on its head.

In a 3-0 game late in the first half, Wisconsin was marching toward at least the tying points or maybe a touchdown. On third-and-3, Garrett Groshek looked to be running for a first down. But defensive end Chauncey Golston bear-hugged him and pulled him backward — a smart play, Ferentz would say later, to not give the official a chance to make a favorable Wisconsin spot.

A fourth-and-1 followed, and Groshek’s Wildcat run was blown up by linebacker Jack Campbell. Iowa got the ball back with 1 minute, 22 seconds left in the half and turned that stop into a last-second Keith Duncan field goal and a 6-0 halftime lead.

Later in the third quarter, after an Iowa punt-team miscue led to seven easy Wisconsin points, the Badgers had the ball back, down 14-7. Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz went back to throw on third-and-7, and Golston read the play and beat his man to grab the scuffling Badgers’ quarterback and spin him down for a 9-yard sack.

“If you go back to earlier in the game when they ran the screen, I beat (the offensive lineman) on that same move,” Golston said. “I knew that I could come back to it.”

Four plays after a punt, Smith-Marsette was flipping into the end zone for a 21-7 lead.

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It looked like Iowa was again in position to virtually run out the clock midway through the fourth quarter until Aussie punter Tory Taylor kicked a ball he had fumbled. That's a penalty in American football and was the equivalent of a turnover that gave Wisconsin first-and-goal at the Hawkeyes’ 5.

The defense went back out there, and forced Wisconsin into a fourth-and-goal from the 2. Campbell read the bootleg pass perfectly. The sophomore explained that he had a feeling the Badgers would try to throw, because they ran out of a similar formation earlier. He was ready for Mertz's end-zone toss and cut in front of it to collect his first career interception for a touchback.

When you hear the Hawkeye mantra, “Tough, Smart, Physical,” it's easy to dismiss the middle word.

Phil Parker’s well-prepared defense sure doesn’t. During this six-game win streak, Iowa's defense has seemed to know exactly what's coming their way. For the third time, the Hawkeyes held their opponent to exactly seven points.

“You win the game Monday through Friday, not just on Saturday,” Belton said. “I feel like as a defense, we won it on Monday through Friday.”

If there was any doubt that this one was over after Campbell’s interception, Goodson erased it. He rocketed 80 yards into the north end zone, a terrific run of agility and pure speed, to record Iowa’s first rushing touchdown against the Badgers since 2014 (and first by a running back since Adam Robinson in 2010).

And the celebration was on, much like it was in 2004. There was no Big Ten championship game back then. And there won’t be for Iowa this year, either, even though they finished the season on a six-game conference winning streak — which could become seven (just like the 2004 team did in Big Ten play after a 0-1 start) against  "Champions Week" opponent Michigan.

But the feelings for Ferentz are probably pretty similar. There were low points early that season, like a 44-7 pummeling at Arizona State and the constant injury losses at running back. But they never quit and finished strong, playing their best football against old rival Wisconsin.

That’s the kind of stuff that brings the ol' coach some tears.

“Those guys found a way to pry it out of me,” Ferentz quipped, his way of redirecting the conversation so he doesn’t get too emotional in press conferences.

This Hawkeye team started 0-2, planting doubts on the outside that the summer’s racial-bias investigation was still lingering.

“There was a whole bunch of people talking about, ‘Oh my God, maybe some of this stuff that happened in the offseason is weighing on them,’” Golston said. “But we came through and what, rattled off six in a row?”

And a sweep of the rivalry trophies. For the first time since 2015, Iowa owns all four. “Albert the Bull,” as Drew Ott dubbed it in 2015, is an Iowa resident again.

"Our players have been great,” Ferentz said. “These guys, they've worked hard. They deserve what they got today.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.