Iowa’s surprising 1981 march to the Rose Bowl included a defensive masterpiece.
Wisconsin had an edge in that race to Pasadena when it hosted Iowa on Nov. 14, 1981. Madison had been awash in Rose Bowl hype the week of the game. But the Hawkeyes jumped out to a 17-0 halftime lead, on a Tom Nichol field goal and a pair of short touchdown runs by Phil Blatcher.
That’s when Iowa coach Hayden Fry put all his chips on the shoulders of his defense and the leg of all-America punter Reggie Roby.
“I told the players at halftime that we didn’t want to take any chances and give Wisconsin good field position with cheap turnovers,” Fry said. “So we relied on Reggie Roby to keep booming the ball to the other end of the field, and we figured the defense could do the rest.”
Wisconsin had just one first down and 29 yards of offense in that first half of the 17-7 loss.
“I think Wisconsin was uptight because of all the Rose Bowl talk,” said Mark Bortz, a Wisconsin native and a rock in Iowa’s defensive front.
Iowa finished the game with just seven first downs, but moved the ball well enough to keep it out of Wisconsin’s hands. And Roby averaged 53.7 yards on seven punts. One of his two 55-yarders went out-of-bounds on the Wisconsin 3.
The Badgers didn’t score until quarterback Jess Cole connected with Thad McFadden on a 55-yard score with just more than 2 minutes remaining.