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Hawkeyes deal with a loss, look to the future | National

IOWA CITY — Forget the margin. Don’t even consider the opponent.

“Every loss is tough, every one of them,’’ Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson said. “They never get any easier to take. You deal with them. You learn from them. Then, you move on, trying to make certain you do everything you can to never have to experience the feeling again.’’

That process began Sunday for the Hawkeyes, headed into a bye week on their schedule looking to move beyond the sting of Saturday night’s 28-17 loss to Wisconsin in a game the now 15th-ranked Badgers took from Iowa with a pair of touchdowns in the final minute.

After being overwhelmed by Wisconsin in a 38-14 loss on the road a year earlier, the Hawkeyes competed on even terms with the preseason favorite in the Big Ten West Division.

But at the end of the night at Kinnick Stadium, it proved costly for Iowa to give the ball away three times to an opponent which played turnover-free football.

That haunted the Hawkeyes as much as the combined conundrum of not being able to sustain critical fourth-quarter drives on offense or find a way to make a stop to give a defense that was on the field for 10-and-a-half minutes in the final quarter a bit of a break.

“It was a lot of little things,’’ defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. “Those little things, in a game like this, they get magnified. A play here, a play there, little things, they prove to be big things at the end of the day.’’

Tight end Noah Fant, who caught the 15th and 16th touchdown passes of his Hawkeye career as Iowa lost for the first time in four games, said players will have a chance to break it all down and think things through with a bit of a break in the schedule.

“It will be good to have some time this week to gather our thoughts, gather what we think we need to do and then improve on things we need to improve on,’’ Fant said.

Coach Kirk Ferentz wants his team to understand how it has improved as well as see where it has room to grow.

Defensively, Iowa did a decent job in limiting all-American running back Jonathan Taylor to a season-low 113 yards on 25 carries, but the Hawkeyes were unable to prevent junior quarterback Alex Hornibrook from completing 17-of-22 passes and improving to 9-0 as a Wisconsin starter in games when he throws more than one touchdown pass.

Ferentz also pointed to the potential he sees in the Hawkeyes’ offensive line as an example of growth and potential.

A year after Iowa rushed for 25 yards and gained only 66 as quarterback Nate Stanley was sacked four times by the Badgers, the Hawkeyes ran for 148 of their 404 yards against Wisconsin and Stanley wasn’t dropped behind the line once.

“They’re quietly moving forward and Keegan Render is kind of the steadying factor and influence in there,’’ Ferentz said. “… We’ve got two guys (in tackles Alaric Jackson and Tristan Wirfs) who are in their second year and that was part of the issue last year up there. We had two guys a year of out of high school playing against some guys who were pretty salty. We’re moving in the right direction.’’

The Hawkeye sense that as well.

But that didn’t lessen the sting of the setback on Saturday night.

“When you play as hard as you can for 60 minutes, pour a lot into it, it hurts when you don’t come away with the win. They just made the critical plays when we couldn’t make them,’’ safety Jake Gervase said.

“We knew coming in this was going to be the most talented offense we were going to face, both in the run and the passing game. We were excited for that challenge, but unfortunately we didn’t play the full 60. We didn’t finish strong and that ended up costing us the game.’’

That leaves Iowa in a position where over the next two weeks the Hawkeyes will work to regroup just like Wisconsin did Saturday. Iowa travels to Minnesota on Oct. 6. 

The last-minute win gives the Badgers essentially a two-game edge over Iowa as they attempt to retain the Big Ten West Division title they have won the past two seasons.

That took resiliency in a bounce-back effort following an unexpected 24-21 loss to BYU a week earlier.

“I’m proud of the way we played. It was far from perfect and yet it was a good response to the last game,’’ Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “A lot of guys put it out there and they had to. I’m proud of the response.’’

Over the next few days and weeks, Ferentz will learn if he can say the same.

“I think we made progress over the first month and really the two keys right now are how we respond and then how we move forward,’’ Ferentz said. “That’s where our focus will start.’’

That work started Sunday.

“It has to,’’ Gervase said. “We can’t let this one game define our season.’’

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