Let's face it, under Kirk Ferentz, the Iowa Hawkeyes have always had a particularly interesting relationship with the Penn State Nittany Lions. Which is to say we beat them, a lot, but there's usually plenty to the game itself and its repercussions that makes these games special. There's seven wins in the Kirk Ferentz era, and we're going to rank them all.
No. 5: November 4, 2000, Iowa 26, Penn State 23
Coming into this game, Iowa needed some good news. All the momentum from their 21-16 victory over Michigan State that snapped that awful 13-game losing streak had pretty much evaporated immediately after Illinois and Ohio State crushed the Hawkeyes in the two ensuing weeks. Sure, Iowa played Wisconsin tough the week prior to their trip to Penn State, but even that was a 13-7 loss, and it's just as easy to get demoralized by a 6-point loss as by a 28-point loss when you're 1-8. Penn State, meanwhile, was 4-5 and winners of three of their last four games. The Nittany Lions were still nowhere near the level of even the year prior, but they still weren't the type of team Iowa should have been beating at that point in the season.
And yet, once the game kicked off, it was Iowa sticking it to Penn State and not the other way around. Iowa's offense was still anemic at that point, but for the second week in a row, the defense was ferocious. Not surprisingly, it was also the second week in a row that Bob Sanders had started at strong safety. Recall, if you will, that Sanders had been all over the place on special teams for the first half of the season, but Kirk Ferentz had resisted actually starting his true freshman up until the Wisconsin game. We can probably guess how Sanders reacted to his promotion:
Yep, pretty much exactly that. PLACE AT THE TABLE.
But it would be wrong to pin the defensive dominance solely on Sanders' presence; Benny Sapp had arguably his best day as a Hawkeye ever, with 10 stops, four defended passes, and a sack. He also had more than a bit of swagger that day, and knowing how that fairy tale ended, it's pretty safe to say that Benny would end up ruining everything for DJK several years later. We kid. Mostly.
So when Iowa raced out to a 13-0 lead (note: this "race" took nearly the entire first half of play), we obviously had every reason to be thrilled. We knew Penn State wasn't going to lay down for the entire game, but hey: 13-point lead! In a Big Ten game! Iowa hadn't done that in over two years, and that is not an exaggeration.
The talent disparity took over shortly thereafter. Penn State got downfield in a hurry on their last drive of the half to hit a 42-yard field goal, and the other 10 points of Iowa's lead disappeared with Iowa's offense in the second half. A Rashard Casey touchdown pass tied the game, and only then did Iowa's offense wake back up--Broadway Kyle McCann drove the Hawkeyes down the field for Nate Kaeding's third field goal of the game, and it was a good thing, because once again, Penn State answered with a field goal late in the half. 16-16, and that was it for scoring; PSU had a 54-yard attempt at the end of regulation, but it had no chance.
So off to overtime we went, and what novelty that was! Iowa had never played in an overtime game, and this seemed like an instance where at the time, maybe it'd have been nicer to just take the tie and get out of there. Obviously, in retrospect, it's good they played the OT, but back then, you have to understand, Iowa was not really a team that, y'know, won football games.
But after the two teams traded touchdowns, McCann got Iowa down to the 9, and Kaeding tied an Iowa record with his fourth field goal (and his first from closer than 43 yards, lest we forget how clutch he was right out of the gate). So it was an Iowa lead, technically, but Penn State was getting the ball in field goal territory already and ugh this new overtime sucks how come Penn State can tie it up like right now if they want to and wait why is Ryan Hansen holding up the ball HOLY SHIT IT'S AN INTERCEPTION DOES THAT MEAN IOWA WINS AND THIS COUNTS AS A REAL WIN SERIOUSLY WOW OKAY SHIT THIS OVERTIME THING IS AWESOME. It was really that quick of a shift: Hansen's game-saving pick off a deflection came on Penn State's very first snap of the second OT, so Iowa fans had yet to escape the glass case of emotions that accompanies seeing your offense settle for a field goal in overtime.
And just like that, Iowa looked like they might just be a team that wins football games after all, something they'd prove in spades the very next week in their demolition of jNWU. No, this win didn't have the heft of some of Iowa's bigger upsets, but it was the team's first road win of the Kirk Ferentz era. Looking back, it seems appropriate that it would come at Penn State, doesn't it? Indeed, seeing such a young team go to Happy Valley and pull out a victory--especially after blowing a 13-point lead--started to give fans the idea that maybe the eye-scalding suckfest that had defined Iowa football was temporary, and that's something that proved true beyond anyone's expectations in 2002. But that's a different story altogether...