Iowa’s defense had been getting better the last two weeks, but it hadn’t been this good.

Six points allowed — a season low — as the Hawkeyes stifled the Badgers, and a Phil Parker masterclass kept the Heartland Trophy in Iowa City for back-to-back years.

“It was a defensive dream. we went out there and competed the full game,” Jay Higgins said. “We had a rough start in the beginning of the third quarter, but I felt like we did a great job settling back down and getting off the field. Any time you can give up six points to a good team like that — good running back, good offensive line.”

“I’m proud of the team because not many people gave us a chance,” Tory Taylor said. “That’s Iowa football. We kind of just find a way to win.”

“I don’t know if it was just me but I could just feel it in the air, I just felt like we were more dominant,” Sebastian Castro said.

“The guys were playing and they got into a groove,” Kirk Ferentz said. “We kind of settled in and you can feel them kind of being wired in.”

The defense is hitting their stride at the right time, the Hawkeyes are now 6-1 and sit atop the Big Ten West. They control their own destiny from here on out. They’ll have Minnesota back at home next weekend.

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‘All they need is one big play’: Hawkeyes take control of Big Ten West with win at Wisconsin

Iowa’s throwback style may not bring many viewers to television sets and certainly doesn’t put many points on the scoreboard.

But it just might get the Hawkeyes to the Big Ten Football Championship Game.

Leshon Williams scored the game’s lone touchdown on an 82-yard breakaway and finished with 174 yards rushing Saturday to lead Iowa to a 15-6 victory over Wisconsin, which lost quarterback Tanner Mordecai to a hand injury.

“We wanted to take the heart out of them,” said Williams, who had 25 carries. “I feel like that’s what we did today.”

Iowa (6-1, 3-1) has sole possession of the Big Ten West Division lead. Not bad for a team that entered Saturday gaining just 249.2 total yards per game, the lowest average of any Football Bowl Subdivision team.

The Hawkeyes didn’t even reach that mark Saturday as they were outgained 324-237. It didn’t matter.

“This game was going to come down to physicality,” said Iowa’s Sebastian Castro, who had two tackles for loss and an interception. “I feel we came out there and did that. We did just that.”

Iowa has beaten Wisconsin (4-2, 2-1) in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2008-09 and gets to maintain possession of the Heartland Trophy, the 72-pound brass bull that goes to the winner of this annual matchup.

A game in which points already figured to be at a premium turned into even more of a defensive struggle after each team lost a top offensive player to a first-half injury.

Iowa tight end Erick All was carted into the locker room after getting injured while making a 5-yard catch on the Hawkeyes’ second series. Wisconsin lost Mordecai late in the second quarter when he was following through on a pass and his throwing hand hit the helmet of Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins.

TV cameras showed Mordecai mouthing, “I can’t throw,” shortly after the play before he headed into the locker room. That forced Wisconsin to turn to Braedyn Locke, a Mississippi State transfer who had thrown just one career pass before Saturday. Locke went 15 o 30 for 122 yards with an interception.

“It doesn’t look good for a little while,” Wisconsin coach Luke Fickell said of Mordecai’s status. “He couldn’t grip the ball, so we’ll have to make sure we find out what the deal is tomorrow and see how long that may last.”

All’s injury was a huge setback for an Iowa offense that already lost starting quarterback Cade McNamara to a season-ending knee injury and tight end Luke Lachey to a likely season-ending ankle injury.

Those injuries forced both teams to look elsewhere for playmakers. Williams responded with Iowa’s longest run from scrimmage since Tavian Banks also had an 82-yarder in a 63-20 blowout of Iowa State in 1997.

With Iowa facing third-and-2 early in the second quarter, Williams made a stutter step in the backfield, burst through a big hole inside, broke free from safety Austin Brown’s arm tackle attempt about a dozen yards downfield and raced down the right sideline.

After that touchdown, Iowa gained 3 net yards over its next six series, all three-and-outs. Yet the Hawkeyes never trailed thanks to their defense.

“All they need is one big play, and they’re happy with that,” Wisconsin safety Preston Zachman said. “They can win games that way. It sucks because we did pretty well most of the game, but that one play was enough for them to come out with the victory.”

Iowa running back Leshon Williams (4) celebrates after his touchdown with fullback Hayden Large (88) and offensive lineman Logan Jones (65) during an NCAA college football game against Wisconsin, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (Geoff Stellfox/The Gazette via AP)

Wisconsin cut the margin to 7-6 in the third period on two Nathanial Vakos field goals, one from 36 yards out and the other from 52.

But Iowa controlled the fourth quarter, getting a pair of Drew Stevens field goals as well as a safety when Yahya Black sacked Locke and forced a fumble that Wisconsin tackle Riley Mahlman recovered in the end zone for a safety with 12:15 remaining.

Iowa sealed the victory by forcing turnovers on Wisconsin’s final two series.


Iowa: Punter Tory Taylor may have been the most important player in this game. He averaged 50.6 yards on his 10 punts. … Iowa’s defense helped Hawkeyes quarterback Deacon Hill beat his former team, though he went just 6 of 14 for 37 yards. Hill played one game in two years at Wisconsin before entering the transfer portal.

Wisconsin: The Badgers entered Saturday with a Big Ten-leading 203.6 yards rushing per game, but Iowa limited them to 96 yards on 28 carries. Braelon Allen rushed for 87 yards on 19 attempts. … Wisconsin drove 81 yards on their opening series but got no points out of it as Cooper DeJean threw Allen for a 2-yard loss on fourth-and-1 from the 13. The Badgers wouldn’t get that close to the end zone again.


Iowa: Hosts Minnesota next Saturday.

Wisconsin: At Illinois next Saturday.

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Iowa celebrates with the Heartland Trophy defeating Wisconsin in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)