Penn State 38, Iowa 14: Appetite for Destruction

Matthew Holst

Recapping Iowa's lopsided loss to Penn State on Saturday night.

So... that sucked? Yes, I think we can all agree that sucked.

Everyone sucked. Want to point fingers? I hope you have a full complement of fingers, because there's plenty of blame to go around after last night's debacle. The offense? Yeah, they were pretty inept. The defense? Yeah, they couldn't stop much of anything. The special teams? Yeah, aside from one bright spot, they were pretty heinous. The coaching? Yeah, they did a pretty terrible job of both getting the team ready for that game and making in-game adjustments to try and salvage things. This was a total team loss, and the worst loss by an Iowa team in several years. It was the worst home loss since a 31-7 beatdown to Penn State in 1999 (although the 2006 primetime loss to Ohio State was also pretty miserable). It might have been the most comprehensive loss overall since the 44-7 smashing Arizona State handed Iowa in the desert in 2004. (For a while, I thought last night's game was going to have an eerily similar score, right down to Iowa's only score coming on a kickoff return touchdown, but then Penn State got a little fumble-happy and Iowa tacked on a meaningless late offensive touchdown.) So a loss like this isn't unheard of in Ferentz's tenure at Iowa... but it's been pretty rare, too, especially since he was able to re-establish a baseline of competence in 2001. This is the second week in a row an Iowa performance has been comparisons to a 1999/2000 game... generally speaking, that is not an era Iowa should be attempting to relive.

10/22 EDIT: As much as this post is about Iowa's failures (and they were manifold), I think the one thing I neglected to adequately convey was just how good Penn State played on Saturday night. On offense and defense, they were very good. McGloin had complete command of the game from the QB position, the passing game and the running game were almost perfectly in sync for PSU, the defense bottled up Iowa's running game, and turned the screws on Vandenberg effectively. But for a couple of semi-fluky fumbles, they could have scored 40+ with ease. This was a really excellent performance for them and I wanted to make sure I acknowledged that; this game wasn't lost solely because Iowa played like crap (and, again, much of that "played like crap"-ness was a result of PSU playing well and forcing Iowa to play like crap) -- it was also lost because Penn State was by far the better team on the evening.

Yeah, the offense really sucked. A week ago, I wondered in horror about what an Iowa offense without Mark Weisman would look like. Last night, we got a glimpse of an Iowa offense without a heavy dose of Weisman and... it was pretty much as awful as feared. Granted, Penn State has a solid, quality defense... but this was still a pretty hopeless performance. Iowa was credited with 23 rushing attempts last night; they gained a whopping 20 yards. Weisman clearly wasn't ready to go, as evidenced by his 5 carries for 9 yards stat line. Greg Garmon was not an adequate replacement, gaining just 27 yards on 8 carries. Jordan Canzeri again remained an option only on paper and in the imagination of fans.

But expectations for the running game were probably pretty low without Weisman; the bigger concern was -- yet again -- the dire performance of the passing game and QB James Vandenberg. Vandenberg finished 17/36 for 189 yards, 1 TD, and 2 INTs. And 69 of those yards came in the fourth quarter, after the outcome was long since decided. It was.... well, yet another pretty terrible performance for the Mandenberg. It was the fifth time he's failed to crack 200 passing yards in a game this year and the second time his completion percentage has been under 50%. And unlike the Iowa State game, I don't think drops can be called the primary culprit for this performance. Whatever mojo he may have had earlier in his career has utterly vanished; he looks like a broken man at this point, physically and mentally. But anyone who had watched the first six games of this season surely wasn't too shocked by JVB's trash fire of an outing last night -- he didn't do anything last night that he hadn't done in previous games -- the bigger shock was that Jake Rudock didn't see a single snap in the game.

To echo Mike Hlas a bit... this is not a plea for Vandenberg to be benched forever and ever and for Rudock to become the unquestioned new starter. I have no knowledge of Rudock's ability beyond a few highlights. I have no idea if he would be the same, better, or worse than Vandenberg. I do not think that Vandenberg is the sole cause of the Iowa offense's malaise and that replacing him would magically fix everything. But at what point does a fresh face start to seem like an option? Apparently never with the current Iowa team and coaching staff. Because if Vandenberg couldn't get benched after Iowa dug a 31-0 hole and he threw an interception on Iowa's first possession of the second half... well, then it's hard to imagine when him ever losing snaps at the position this season (barring injury). The second half of last night's game looked tailor-made to give Rudock some snaps and see what he can do; apparently Kirk Ferentz is not much of a tailor.

The argument for sticking with him is to let him play through his struggles and that benching him would do harm to his psyche and his confidence. Those arguments feel pretty flimsy, though; he's had seven games now to "play through his struggles" and "struggle" has become the new normal. And if his psyche and confidence is so fragile that getting benched in a game that had become hopeless would do irreparable harm... well, that seems like a problem, too. But whether it's a problem or not is irrelevant: short of an injury (and please don't be so callous as to start rooting for an injury to a 23-year old whose only "crime" is not playing quarterback well enough), we're not going to see another Iowa quarterback get handed the keys to this offense until August 31, 2013, when Northern Illinois pays a visit to Kinnick.

... but so did the defense. Vandenberg's dismal day gets the headline treatment, but the defense was arguably every bit as dire last night. Penn State had 38 points and they should have had more if not for a missed field goal and a few fumbles (particularly a fumble as Penn State was going into the end zone to score another touchdown). Honestly, 38 points might have been just about the minimum they could have scored with as well as their offense played. They had over 500 yards, including 215 yards on the ground. Matt McGloin continued to look like the best quarterback in the Big Ten; he shredded Iowa's secondary to the tune of 289 yards and 2 TDs on 26/38 passing. Like Vandenberg, McGloin is a senior year in the first year of a new offensive system. The similarities stop there. Despite losing his top running back and top wide receiver to transfers before the season, McGloin (and Bill O'Brien, the architect of this fearsome offense) has led a balanced, increasingly devastating offense. It certainly ripped Iowa's defense to shreds last night.

Before the season, we feared their might be games like this where this young, rebuilding defense would get their heads handed to them. I don't think many of us expected Penn State (and Central Michigan, for that matter) to be the ones dismantling this defense, though. (Interestingly, the two ugliest Iowa defeats in recent memory -- this game and Michigan State last year -- both featured largely pro-style offenses, not the spread offenses that we tend to fret about so much.) The good news (if there is any) is that the defense bounced back pretty nicely the last time they laid an egg... and Iowa doesn't figure to see another offense quite like this one, either. On the other hand, it probably won't matter what scheme the other offense runs if the Iowa defense tackles this badly, covers this poorly, and gets so little pressure.

... and it wasn't a great day for the special teams, either. A week after we thought the special teams were again turning into an Iowa strength, they decided to try and match the offense and defense in the godawful stakes. Mike Meyer, who we praised lavishly following his heroics in East Lansing last week, missed two field goals (albeit one from 49 yards out) and only a shoelace tackle from him prevented Penn State from returning the opening kickoff of the second half for a touchdown. So yeah: a pretty bad day. The only bright spot? Jordan Cotton returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the second straight week -- and this one actually counted! Cotton continues to look like the most dynamic return man Iowa has had since DJK. So that's nice.

What now? There's good news and bad news to take away from this all-around disaster of a game. The good news is that as bad as this game was, it only counts for one loss in the standings -- and Iowa is still (remarkably) very much alive in the Legends division race. The other good news is that, in the Ferentz era, the results of one game often have little impact on the performance in the next game. That can be incredibly frustrating -- like yesterday, when Iowa follows up a dramatic win over Michigan State in East Lansing with a complete shit-the-bed effort, or in 2008 when Iowa followed up the nail-biting Penn State win with a sleepwalk of a performance against Purdue the following week. But it can be a good thing, too, as when Iowa is able to flush away a bad performance and play much better the following week -- like earlier this year, when they followed up the gut-wrenching Central Michigan loss with their most complete performance of the season in the win over Minnesota. (Or when they bounced back from the meltdown against Minnesota last year to play their most complete game of the season and beat Michigan.)

Hopefully that happens again here... even if it's damn hard to have much optimism at the moment. When two of the best offensive linemen are the team are out indefinitely (and in the case of one, Brandon Scherff, out for the entire season), when the quarterback has struggled the entire season (and shown almost no signs of improvement), and when the opponents on tap (Northwestern and Indiana) are teams that given Iowa no end of grief in recent seasons... well, I don't blame anyone for being pessimistic. There's not a lot to inspire confidence right now. Iowa isn't as bad as they looked last night... but seven games in, it's also not very clear at all how good they are, either.

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