IOWA CITY, Iowa — Playing shorthanded has become the norm for the University of Wisconsin football team this season.
So has struggling offensively.
The No. 25 Badgers managed just one scoring drive in a 28-7 loss at No. 19 Iowa on Saturday, continuing a troubling trend of subpar offensive showings that have resulted in 20 combined points over the past three games. Saturday’s loss marked the first time since 1990 that the Badgers failed to score 10 points in three consecutive games.
UW (2-3) was without its top two receivers in seniors Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor and starting running back in freshman Jalen Berger for undisclosed reasons. That trio, despite missing other games this season, entered the day accounting for 34.5% of team’s offense, and their absences proved to be too much for the team to bear.
“Obviously we’re not playing the way we want to play, and that’s frustrating,” UW redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz said. “In the end it just comes down to execution. I’m putting that on my plate, we’ve got to execute better. Our defense has been playing great, special teams have been playing great … we just need to respond. I know we will, I know we can.”
Trailing by six, UW came out of halftime utilizing quick passes and runs between the tackles to get within scoring range. But a short slant pass was dropped by Chimere Dike on third-and-2 from the Iowa 29, which led to a missed 47-yard field goal by Collin Larsh. It was Larsh’s first miss of the season.
That miss seemed to spark the Hawkeyes (6-2) — winners of six straight — who moved down the field quickly on the following drive to score the first touchdown of the game. Ihmir Smith-Marsette hauled in a 38-yard post and then scored from 19 yards on a fade from the slot two plays later, converting quarterback Spencer Petras’ best throws of the game.
The Badgers got a needed boost from the special teams when long snapper Adam Bay recovered a fumble caused by Travian Blaylock and Tyler Mais on an Iowa punt return to set UW up at the Iowa 25. Jack Dunn made a catch for 21 yards down to the 1, and Nakia Watson punched it in a play later for UW’s first touchdown in two weeks to halve the lead late in the third quarter.
But the momentum gained from this sequence didn’t last.
“We had some opportunities, had our chances,” UW coach Paul Chryst said. “But you have to be opportunistic when you get those chances and certainly we didn’t (do that).”
Iowa moved to midfield on the ensuing drive, then Petras hit Smith-Marsette on a deep over route for a 53-yard TD that put the Hawkeyes back in front by two scores late in the third quarter.
The Hawkeyes gifted UW another chance after an illegal kick on a fourth-quarter punt gave the Badgers the ball on the Iowa 5, but the offense picked up 3 yards and Mertz was picked off on a fourth-down pass.
Mertz finished 20 of 38 for 168 yards, and the team rushed for a season-low 56 yards on 33 carries (1.7 yards per carry). UW’s 225 total yards were its fewest of the year by 117 yards and the team went 4 of 18 on third down. Chryst said senior quarterback Jack Coan wasn’t an option to play this week, so pulling Mertz didn’t enter the equation despite the offense’s struggles.
“We know that we’ve got young and inexperienced (players) at a lot of those skill positions,” Chryst said. “You go into it wanting to make sure that you’re not putting too much on their plate so that they can grasp it. In the end, it always comes down to some little details.”
Sustaining drives continued to be an issue for the Badgers for the third straight week.
Despite having nine possessions in the first half, five of which it started at its 30-yard line or better, UW failed to score and tallied 66 yards on 31 plays. It was the first scoreless first half of the season for the Badgers.
Mertz’s interception — which was followed by Iowa’s put-away, 80-yard score the next play — was one of three chances deep in Hawkeye territory that came up empty.
Late in the first half, the Badgers faced a fourth-and-2 at Iowa’s 31 and used a wildcat formation with senior running back Garrett Groshek taking the snap — a look they used last year but hadn’t this season until Saturday. Groshek tried to run right, but center Tanor Bortolini missed linebacker Jack Campbell, who came on a delayed rush and stopped Groshek’s momentum for a loss.
In the middle of the fourth quarter, UW put together its longest drive of the afternoon in terms of both plays and yardage, but fell short of scoring when Mertz — who stepped up in the pocket in the face of pressure — threw a bit behind Dunn on what would’ve been a scoring play.
“I felt like there were times that we were moving the ball pretty well,” said Dunn, who had a team-high 55 receiving yards. “It’s no secret that we’ve got to get the ball in the end zone. I think it just comes down to execution part where if we can be a little bit more clean, eliminate some of the mistakes we’re making — whether it’s turnovers or penalties or things like that — we’ve got the pieces to finish those drives.”