MADISON, Wis. – Is Wisconsin developing into the best team in the Big Ten’s West Division?
Yes, the Badgers have four league games remaining on their schedule.
But 10th-ranked Iowa generally was considered the best team in the division entering Saturday, and the unranked Badgers dominated the Hawkeyes in all phases in a 27-7 victory in front of an announced crowd of 74,209 at Camp Randall Stadium.
UW’s defense limited Iowa to 23 total yards and one first down and forced two turnovers in the opening half to help UW build a 20-0 lead.
The punt-coverage unit recovered a muff to set up a score and kicker Collin Larsh continued his stellar season by making both field-goal attempts.
The offense scored only 10 points off three Iowa turnovers in the half but opened the scoring with an impressive 65-yard touchdown drive and moved the ball well enough to complement the work of the defense.
As a result, the Badgers topped a ranked foe for the second consecutive week and improved to 3-2 in the league and 5-3 overall.
They have won their last four games to climb into the thick of the race for the West Division title.
Iowa (6-2, 3-2) suffered its second consecutive loss. The Hawkeyes were 3-0 in the league and 6-0 overall before falling to Purdue two weeks ago.
Minnesota was 3-1 in the league and 5-2 overall entering its game Saturday at Northwestern.
Wisconsin's defense puts on impressive show
UW’s defense was ridiculously dominant in the first half and finished with six sacks, gave up just one scoring drive and held Iowa to 12 rushing yards.
Iowa finished with 156 yards on 55 plays, an average of 2.8 yards per play. The Hawkeyes converted just 2 of 13 third-down chances and went 0 for 3 on fourth down.
Quarterback Graham Mertz was solid early and passed for one touchdown and ran for another in the opening half. He added a 1-yard sneak early in the fourth quarter to help UW build a 27-7 lead and finished 11 of 22 for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Braelon Allen (20 carries, 104 yards) and Chez Mellusi (19-48) ran the ball effectively enough to take the pressure off Mertz.
Allen rushed six times for 37 yards on an 11-play, 60-yard drive that allowed UW to push the lead to 27-7.
Mertz, who came in completing 55.9% of his passes, led UW on an eight-play, 65-yard touchdown drive with his arm.
He hit 5 of 5 passes for 52 yards, capping the drive with a 4-yard pass to tight end Jake Ferguson on third and 1.
Mertz faked the handoff to Allen, Iowa’s defense bit and Ferguson was all alone to help UW take a 7-0 lead with 3:08 left in the first quarter.
UW’s defense forced Iowa to go three and out on its first three series.
UW’s offense answered with a 45-yard scoring drive on its third series.
The Badgers got a 28-yard run from Allen to the Iowa 38 on the first play of the drive and eventually moved to a third-and-1 situation at the 10. Allen lost a yard on third down, however, and UW settled for a 29-yard field goal by Larsh for a 10-0 lead with 12:18 left in the half.
UW had a chance to pad the lead thanks to the defense forcing a turnover but failed.
Iowa faced third and 17 from its 14 when linebacker Nick Herbig forced quarterback Spencer Petras to fumble and Keeanu Benton recovered at the 8 with 10:49 left in the half.
Badgers leave no doubt as Mertz sneaks in for touchdown
Mellusi gained 3 yards on first down, Allen gained 2 on second down and Mertz hit Ferguson for 2 on third down.
Fullback John Chenal tried to leap over the pile on fourth and goal but was stuffed with 8:30 left.
No problem, Jim Leonhard’s defense said, we’ll get the ball back.
Iowa reserve tailback Ivory Kelly-Martin fumbled on second and 9 from the 2 and linebacker Noah Burks recovered at the 1.
The offense didn’t mess around this time and Mertz sneaked in behind his line for a 17-0 lead with 7:40 left in the half.
To that point, Iowa had more turnovers (two) than yards (minus-1) on 14 plays.
The Badgers got the ball back again in Iowa territory, this time after a muffed punt return recovered by safety Travian Blaylock at the Hawkeyes’ 18.
Blaylock made a similar play at Iowa in 2018 and UW turned that miscue into a touchdown. UW settled for a field goal this time. Larsh drilled a 32-yarder to push the lead to 20-0 with 2:57 left in the half.
The Badgers took that lead into the locker room and the yardage disparity was staggering.
UW gained 192 yards on 40 plays, an average of 4.8 yards per play, and had 11 first downs.
Iowa gained 23 yards on 17 plays, an average of 0.7 yards per play, and managed one first down. That came with 1:26 left in the half on a 12-yard pass from Petras to tight end Sam LaPorta.
Wisconsin's defense comes up with key stop
The UW offense managed a total of 3 yards on its first two series of the second half, going three and out each time.
Iowa took over at the UW 40 with 10:49 left in the third quarter, after a UW punt.
The Hawkeyes used two big runs and a pass-interference call to move the ball to the 2 and Petras sneaked in from the 1 on second and goal to cut UW’s lead to 20-7 with 8:21 left.
How would UW’s offense respond? With its third consecutive three and out.
Iowa took over at its 36 after the punt and moved to fourth and 1 at the UW 40.
After taking a timeout, the Hawkeyes gave the ball to fullback Monte Pottebaum for the second consecutive play. Pottebaum had gained 1 yard on third and 2 but this time was stuffed by the middle of UW’s line and came up inches short.
Badgers put the game away with final touchdown drive
UW took over at its 40 with 3:53 left. To that point in the half the Badgers had 4 yards on nine plays.
The Badgers lost tight end Clay Cundiff (leg), who was taken away in an ambulance, on the seventh play of the drive, but they punched it into the end zone on a 1-yard sneak by Mertz with 12:54 left.
That capped an 11-play, 60-yard drive as UW pushed its lead to 27-7 with 12:54 left in the game and regained the momentum Iowa worked hard to build.
Iowa took the kickoff and moved from its 23 to the UW 36 but Herbig sacked Petras for a 7-yard loss on first down and the Hawkeyes eventually failed to convert fourth and 13 with 10:48 left.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Wisconsin Badgers dominate No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes in Big Ten West game