MADISON, Wis. — Yards were tough to find.
Inches, too, at the most critical time of the game.
A win right now is hard to find for Iowa.
The fast start to the season has faded into the autumn chill. Saturday’s 27-7 loss to Wisconsin was the latest stumble for the No. 9 Hawkeyes.
The defense has gone from ball-hawking snatchers to grasping for stops. The offense, once doing just enough to win, is doing little, if anything, right.
The fury of September has turned into a tepid October, a gloom that the Hawkeyes are trying to fight off.
“There’s no panic,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “We've been here before.”
“It’s definitely been tough, these past two losses,” defensive tackle Noah Shannon said. “But it’s something we’ve been through.”
The Hawkeyes lost their first two games last season, then won their last six. Now, the 6-0 start to this season has been long forgotten after a home loss to Purdue, a bye week when they claimed they were going to try to solve what was ailing them, and then this stumble.
The smooth road the Hawkeyes had built for themselves has been turned into rocky infrastructure that needs to be fixed, but no one seems to be sure how.
Iowa (6-2 overall, 3-2 Big Ten) once controlled its own fate. Now the rest of the season is an equation with too many outcomes to think about.
“We certainly have work to do,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Wisconsin (4-3, 2-2) always seems to have the Hawkeyes solved — the Badgers were in control of this game from beginning to end, even during a conservative third-quarter drive when it felt like they could mess around and let the game get away, only for the Hawkeyes to not figure out a way to grab it.
Three times the Badgers started a possession inside Iowa’s red zone because of two fumbles and a muffed punt. That led to 10 Wisconsin points, which felt like hitting the lottery on this day.
Iowa finished the first quarter with minus-1 yard of total offense. The Hawkeyes didn’t get their first first down until 1:30 left in the first half. They didn’t get into Wisconsin territory until the second play of their first possession of the second half.
“Better execution,” Petras said when asked how the Hawkeyes could be better. “All sides. That’s it.”
The defense, which once led the nation in takeaways, hasn’t gotten a turnover in the last two games. The Badgers had 166 rushing yards, the most allowed by Iowa this season.
“We just got outplayed,” safety Jack Koerner said. “That’s all there is to it.”
The first turning point of the game came in the first half, when the Iowa defense stopped Wisconsin on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled to give the ball back to the Badgers, and quarterback Graham Mertz scored on the next play for a 17-0 Wisconsin lead.
Iowa seemed to have momentum after getting its only points of the game, a 1-yard touchdown dive from Petras in the third quarter. The Hawkeyes got to Wisconsin 41, and had two plays to get two yards and a first down to keep the drive going. Two carries by fullback Monte Pottebaum got all but a few inches, and the Badgers took over. The touchdown they would score on the ensuing possession was fueled by the energy they had stolen from the Hawkeyes.
“We thought the best option was that play,” Petras said of the second Pottebaum run. “They stopped us. They did a good job.”
“Needless to say, we thought it was the best call,” Ferentz said. “Needless to say, it wasn’t successful. Right after that play, it swung the momentum.
“It was pretty much over at that point.”
Iowa had just 156 yards of offense on 55 plays.
“We’re not moving the ball consistently enough,” Ferentz said. “We could go down the entire list of reasons. … I don’t think there’s one specific reason right now. We’re just not executing well enough to get the job done, get the ball moving more consistently.”
“There could be 10 guys doing their job, and one not, and it’s a bad play,” Petras said. “It’s a unit-wide thing. It seems to show up here and there.”
Here and there has become too much for the Hawkeyes.
“I’d like to think we can respond really well from this, finish the season,” Koerner said. “Because there’s plenty more to play for.”
“Nobody in our camp is ready to pack it in,” Ferentz said. “We’ve got a 12-game schedule. We knew that 12 weeks ago, however many weeks ago, when August (camp) started. We’re going to play it out. We can’t afford to be reactionary. We’ve got to play it out.”