In its biggest game of the season against perhaps its toughest opponent to date, the University of Wisconsin turned the ball over four times on its first nine possessions, two of which resulted in pick-sixes the other way.
The way the Badgers’ defense is playing, it simply didn’t matter.
Iowa’s offense totaled just 66 yards and five first downs Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, as eighth-ranked UW clinched the Big Ten West division and its first 10-0 start in program history with a 38-14 victory.
The Hawkeyes failed to convert a third down on 13 attempts. Their 66 yards, which were gained across 50 plays, were the second-fewest the Badgers have allowed in the modern era (since 1946) and the third-fewest by an FBS team ranked in the top 25 in the AP poll over the last 20 seasons.
“This is the best performance from a defensive I’ve been around ever, I’ve ever seen,” UW cornerback Derrick Tindal said. “We could turn the ball over 50 times. I feel like our defense is going to step up to the task."
UW forced three-and-outs on seven of its first eight defensive series, and the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4) didn’t pick up their second first down of the game until less than 7 minutes remained in the third quarter.
That ended a drought of 20 minutes without a first down for Iowa. Three plays later, UW scored a defensive touchdown of its own when outside linebacker Leon Jacobs picked up a fumbled snap and returned it 21 yards to give the Badgers a 24-14 lead.
“I started celebrating because I thought it was dead,” Jacobs said. "When I turned back, everyone was still in a dog pile, so I was like, ‘Oh, let me go help them.’ And then ironically, the ball was right there."
That kickstarted even more misery for the Hawkeyes’ offense.
Iowa’s next three possessions ended with another three-and-out and two more turnovers — both of which led to UW touchdowns.
Inside linebacker T.J. Edwards tipped a pass to himself for an acrobatic interception on the Badgers' 41-yard line with 0:18 left in the third quarter, and running back Bradrick Shaw scored from 8 yards out less than five minutes later.
Inside linebacker Ryan Connelly’s sack-fumble on Iowa’s next drive was recovered by Jacobs on the Hawkeyes’ 14, setting up Hornibrook for a 5-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Taylor that pulled UW ahead 38-14.
“Maybe it’s a shock, but I think we just rose to the challenge,” UW safety Joe Ferguson said of the defense’s performance. "We felt like we didn’t have a single mental error out there. It felt like every check was money, all of our disguises were good and then the front seven was going crazy, winning their one-on-ones. It was just great."
Wide receiver Kendric Pryor scored his first two career touchdowns in the first half, allowing UW to take a 17-7 lead into halftime despite three early turnovers.
Pryor scored the first on a 25-yard end around — with an assist from center Tyler Biadasz, who pancaked Iowa cornerback Manny Rugamba to clear space — giving the Badgers their first lead at 10-7.
The receiver also caught a 12-yard pass over Rumamba to extend that advantage with 1:19 left in the first half.
The Hawkeyes’ second pick-six came on UW’s first possession of the second half. Badgers quarterback Alex Hornibrook threw a pass a bit high to running back Rachid Ibrahim in the flat. The ball bounced off Ibrahim’s hands and Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson caught it on the run before returning it 52 yards for a score.
Jackson also had the Hawkeyes’ first interception for a touchdown when he returned a Hornibrook pass 43 yards on the fourth play of the game.
Hornibrook finished 11-of-18 passing for 135 yards with two touchdowns and three picks — increasing his interception total to 11 in seven Big Ten games — while running back Jonathan Taylor had 157 yards on 29 carries but also lost his fourth fumble of the season.
Despite forcing four turnovers, though, Iowa didn’t run a single play from inside the UW 47-yard line.
“Their defense was better than advertised,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "I can’t imagine they’ve played a better game than that."
Saturday marked what many will deem the Badgers’ most impressive win of the season — a performance that arguably exceeds anything UW showed during its first nine victories.
On a day when a number of top-10 teams fell, the Badgers were finally the ones turning heads.
“We’re here,” Tindal said. "Either you’re going to respect us or you better get out of our way. That’s how we feel."