You can point to any number of statistics to illustrate the dominance of Wisconsin’s defense Saturday in a 38-14 mauling of Iowa at Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers allowed just 66 yards, their fewest ever to a Big Ten opponent and the second-lowest opponent total in UW history. Those 66 yards were the third-fewest by an FBS team ranked in The Associated Press top 25 over the last 20 years.
The Hawkeyes averaged 1.3 yards per play. They were 0 for 13 on third down. Quarterback Nate Stanley completed only 8 passes in 24 attempts, threw an interception and was sacked four times.
Those would be impressive defensive numbers in a video game.
But they barely begin to tell the story of Wisconsin’s defense, which once again had to overcome a litany of mistakes by the offense—three interceptions by quarterback Alex Hornibrook, two of them returned for touchdowns, and another fumble by the otherwise sensational Jonathan Taylor.
“When something bad happens, I think our guys love rising to the challenge,” said senior safety Joe Ferguson. “We’re not angry at the offense, we’re not angry at the situation, we’re just ready to see what we’re made of.”
What they’re made of, to quote a popular song, is gunpowder and lead.
Considering that Iowa was coming off a 55-24 throttling of Ohio State in which Stanley threw five touchdown passes and the Hawkeyes piled up 487 yards, and considering that UW-Iowa games are rarely one-sided, this qualified as utter domination.
“It felt like we didn’t have a single mental error out there,” Ferguson said. “All the calls were money, all the checks were the right ones and then guys won their one-on-one battles.”
Even though the Badgers are 10-0 for the first time in program history and earned their fifth berth in the Big Ten championship game, head coach Paul Chryst has to have concerns about the offense, which has established a trend of starting slowly and giving the opponents extra possessions.
When it comes to the defense, though, Chryst can sleep easy at night.
“It was a heck of a performance by the defense,” he said. “Credit to the coaches for the plan, and then the players went out and executed. They played with confidence, and they obviously were put in tough situations. But they were a lot of fun to watch today.
“So many guys stepped up and made plays.”
The biggest was a third-quarter fumble recovery by senior linebacker Leon Jacobs, after Iowa’s Joshua Jackson scored on his second pick-six of the game to narrow Wisconsin’s lead to 17-14.
Stanley appeared to be trying to change the play and wasn’t ready for the shotgun snap, which caromed off his right hip. The ball bounced around under a pile of players, somehow squirted out the back end and Jacobs picked it up and ran 21 yards untouched for the score.
One of Jacobs’ knees was on the turf but he alertly got to his feet before grabbing the ball so he wouldn’t be ruled down.
“Football I.Q.,” he said with a smile.
“Incredible play,” Ferguson said. “That’s Leon, though. He’s just a manimal out there, throwing dudes off of him and making plays.”
Jacobs also recovered a fumble after linebacker Ryan Connelly blitzed up the middle and Stanley dropped the ball while trying to elude him. Then there was linebacker T.J. Edwards’ leaping, athletic interception, which ended Iowa’s game-best 33-yard drive.
“Their defense was better than advertised,” said Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz. “Not that they haven’t been playing well all season long, but I can’t imagine they’ve played a better game than that.”
Asked if it was the best defensive performance he’d seen from his program, Chryst said, “Certainly feels like it right now.”
You know what else it feels like?
It feels like the Badgers might have the best defense in the nation.