IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Cooper DeJean returned an interception for a touchdown and set up another score with a 41-yard punt return as Iowa defeated Wisconsin 24-10 on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes (6-4, 4-3 Big Ten) moved into a tie for the Big Ten West lead with their third consecutive win. Iowa, ranked 129th nationally in total offense, had just 142 yards and averaged 2.1 yards per play, but took advantage of plays made by its defense and special teams.
“You've got to make plays when they present themselves,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Our guys did a good job of that.”
“Any time they do that, we need to execute,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “It's a gift you have to take advantage of.”
DeJean, a sophomore cornerback who also had 10 tackles, had a 32-yard interception return late in the first half that gave Iowa a 14-3 lead.
“I was beaten a little bit, so I had to just make a play,” DeJean said. “Once I got it, it was all green from there.”
Then, with the Hawkeyes holding a 14-10 lead in the third quarter, DeJean’s punt return gave Iowa the ball at the Wisconsin 18-yard line. Five plays later Petras scored on a 1-yard dive.
DeJean was angry at himself for not getting a touchdown on his return and was especially unhappy that he was tackled by punter Andy Vujnovich.
“I thought I could outrun the last man there,” DeJean said. “It's the punter...”
“That was just a big swing in the game,” Ferentz said.
DeJean also helped down a punt at the 1-yard line in the possession before his punt return.
“What doesn't Coop do well?” Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather said. “The ceiling for him is the sky.”
Iowa’s first touchdown also followed a big special teams play in the second quarter. Deontae Craig blocked Vujnovich's punt and Jay Higgins recovered at the Badgers’ 17-yard line. Kaleb Johnson scored on a 4-yard run two plays later to give Iowa a 7-3 lead.
“Things get close when we play great teams and special teams need to be a factor in the game,” Wisconsin interim head coach Jim Leonhard said. “Unfortunately, today it was a factor in the wrong direction for us.”
Wisconsin (5-5, 3-4), which had 227 yards of offense, scored first on a 32-yard field goal from Nate Van Zelst. Graham Mertz threw a 51-yard touchdown pass to Keontez Lewis with 52 seconds left in the first half to cut Iowa’s lead to 14-10.
Iowa’s Drew Stevens had a 44-yard field goal with 2:54 left in the game for the final points.
Petras, who threw for just 94 yards, was sacked six times.
Mertz threw for 176 yards but was sacked four times and lost a fumble along with the two interceptions.
“There was definitely some miscommunication we have to clean up,” Leonhard said.
“I said (to the players) in the Monday meeting if we were going to win this game, we were going to have to earn it,” Ferentz said. “Don't expect any freebies, we're not going to get anything easy out of this. We were going to have to go out and win it, earn it, or we were going to go home sad. We've had a few of those, and they're not much fun.”
The Hawkeyes won their 13th consecutive November game. Their last loss in the month was a 24-22 defeat at Wisconsin in 2019.
“Really good teams should be peaking in November,” Petras said.
Wisconsin, which had won eight of the last 10 games against Iowa, was able to get some yardage against the Hawkeyes, who rank in the top 10 nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and passing defense. But Mertz’s turnovers were costly.
This was an elimination game for the West Division lead, and Iowa came up with the biggest plays. The Hawkeyes are now part of the four-way tie for the lead with Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota, and they became bowl eligible.
Wisconsin: At Nebraska on November 19.
Iowa: At Minnesota on November 19.