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Ranking The Iowa-Penn State Wins, No. 1: 2008

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 eight wins in the Kirk Ferentz era, and we're going to rank them all. Also, if you were curious, last Saturday's win would be... oh, fifth or sixth. 

No. 1: November 8, 2008, Iowa 24, Penn State 23

(This one's long. Sorry, people.)

If ever there were a win more badly needed in the Kirk Ferentz era, it was undoubtedly this one. Iowa was a frustrating 5-4 coming into the game, despite having its best tailback since (at least) Ladell Betts in Shonn Greene and a typically stingy defense. All four losses had come by five points or fewer, and really, this was all beginning to get just a bit old. Said I after the preceding game against Illinois (emphasis preserved from the original posting):

The problem, of course, is that Kirk Ferentz isn't paid for growing pains anymore. And when you get a situation like this where Iowa hasn't won their last 8 games decided by three points or fewer, that starts to become an indictment of the head coach. [...]

Going back as long as the seniors have been suiting up, the Iowa program has real, fatal trouble in close games. Coming into a game against a PSU team that's superior in both discipline and physical talent, that spells automatic loss this weekend. Don't let the 7.5-point line fool you--while Iowa's certainly capable of making the game competitive for all four quarters, there is very, very little to suggest they can come away from the game with an upset win.

That was just two years ago--or 23 months, to be more precise. That was how we were talking about Ferentz, and at the time, it wasn't unreasonable. We had no idea if Ferentz could put together big seasons without the Bobs (Sanders and Gallery). His salary had become an easy, lazy source of derision for easy, lazy columnists. Kirk Ferentz's job didn't specifically depend on the Penn State game, but his sense of job security--that stability we'd mentioned over in No. 2--was at stake. And, lest we forget, so was Penn State's undefeated season and national championship candidacy.

And what a game it was. Iowa struck quickly by forcing a fumble on a Daryll Clark pass attempt on the very first possession, and the miracle of Clark recovering at the 1 was quickly negated when the Hawkeyes needed only two plays from scrimmage (both Shonn Greene runs) to find the end zone on their ensuing possession. It was 7-0 before either team's adrenaline had a chance to wear off, and the Kinnick crowd was absolutely delirious with glee. 

But reality set in shortly thereafter, and the reality was that unlike '09 and '10, the Penn State offensive line was most mansome across the board. For pretty much the first and only time all season, Iowa's defensive front was pushed around, and Penn State put together a pretty effective rushing attack based on, of all people, WR Derrick Williams. Witness this partisan but professional PSU perspective (but as always, spoiler alert if you keep watching past halftime):

That the Penn State coaches designed a dominating attack around Williams is a major testament to the staff. That's just great coaching. 

Meanwhile, the Penn State defense would completely shut Iowa down through the first half, and the Hawkeyes went into the locker room down only 13-7. It would have been worse, but Royster struggled to rush on Iowa's goal line package, and that was due in some part to Karl Klug holding his coming-out party that evening. Klug only got one tackle in that package, a 5-yard loss on Royster, but it made a 4-point difference.

Aside from Klug (who, at that point, was just a spot player) Penn State was winning the battle at the LOS--and when Ferentz's Iowa teams have lost the LOS, they pretty usually lose the game.

The third quarter was typical 2008 Iowa; the Ricky Stanzi pump fake to get Derrell Johnson-Koulianos open on the double move for the touchdown was elegant, but the two turnovers sent the teams into the fourth quarter with Penn State up 23-14. Consider again the Hawkeyes' recent record in close games at that point; aside from the 2004 season, Iowa kinda sucked at winning the nail-biters under Ferentz. So when Williams waltzed into the end zone for his second rushing touchdown of the day (again, he's a wideout), it was awfully difficult for Hawkeye fans not to think, "here we go again."

And yet, once Penn State extended that lead back to nine points, Iowa responded yet again. With the wind in their favor, the Hawkeyes were forced to punt rather quickly, but their defense (and the elements) helped turn the exchange of punts into a net 20-yard gain. Suddenly, Iowa was in business.

If you'll permit me a brief aside, at this point in the game, my dad called me. We don't normally do this, and really, I think this was the only game we ever watched together over the phone for more than 20 seconds. I realize this doesn't make the game any more or less great, but I mention it because we came to a quick agreement about what Iowa needed to do to stay in the game and pull off the upset. It seemed plausible, but a tall task all the same, and I'd be lying if there wasn't a heavy amount of fatalism in our initial discussion. Were we seeking tacit justification for not wanting to watch yet another single-possession loss? Maybe.

Brandon Myers made some clutch receptions on the drive, and Greene took advantage to get into the end zone with a bit under 10 minutes to play. All of a sudden, those "here's what Iowa needs to do" talks started to get a whole lot more reasonable. 23-21 with 9 and change to play? Let's do it, right?

And indeed, when Iowa stuffed Royster to force a 3-and-out on the very next possession, it started to look like an Iowa win was almost inevitable... until Colin Sandeman ran into punter Jeremy Boone's leg on the next play, drawing a devastating roughing the kicker penalty. We dispute the call of roughing instead of running into the kicker, considering Sandeman merely ran under Boone's descending leg rather than making contact with his upper body or support leg, but y'know, those calls happen.

At that point, Paterno decided to keep basing the offense around Derrick Williams, and that would become Penn State's bane for the first time all game long. From the Wildcat formation (can we stop capitalizing that? It's not a "Shotgun" formation. Or "I-formation"... wait shit),  Williams tossed a fantastic in-route for a first down inside Iowa's 25 yard line. But Paterno wouldn't let Williams go. The next snap went to Williams, loss of one. 2nd and 11? Back to Williams, loss of 3, 3rd and 14. Then a devastating holding penalty, and Ferentz elected to push the Nittany Lions out of field goal range.

Another aside: Ferentz has a history of unconventional but devastatingly successful decisions in this rivalry, especially recently. The "Eff You" safety with 8 minutes left in 2004. The field goal while up eight with scant time left last year. This acceptance of the holding call on 3rd down here. And the personnel decision that's about to ensue.

What ensued might have been the most memorable interception in Iowa history at that point (Tyler Sash '09 vs. Indiana  clearly wins now, but back then...). Clark fired toward (who else?) Williams on a post route, but the throw sailed over Williams' head and into the waiting hands of Sash, who ran it back to the Iowa 29.

The last drive, we all remember pretty well. I think even Penn State fans have accepted that Scirotto's pass interference was a legit, routine call at this point, so there's probably no point in fighting that battle again. And really, if Penn State fans want to argue calls on the final drive, the two first down throws to Brandon Myers afterward--including one on 3rd and 10--were both spotted about a yard ahead of where they should have been. Myers probably got the first down on both, but where Myers actually got the ball, it would have required a measurement. There's Iowa's luck with the officials, not the PI call.

Iowa would register five first downs on the drive: one on that PI, and the rest on remarkably accurate passes by Stanzi. We'd seen flashes of that ability up to that point on the season, but certainly not that day. Remember the gaudy 4th quarter stats Stanzi put up in 2009? Yep, should have seen them coming.

And then the kick. Wait, hang on:

Even waiting for the kick, there was a palpable anxiety among Iowa fans, because as far as we knew, if this went in, we were witnessing a sea change in the state of Hawkeye football. I keep saying this, but it warrants mention: Iowa wasn't a team that did this. And so when Daniel Murray stepped out and not Trent Mossbrucker--for no immediately evident reason, except that Kirk Ferentz is smarter than you, me, and Dupree--all of a sudden that fear shifted to "and oh crap Iowa's still not going to be a team that does this, because Daniel Murray should not be out there." But he nailed it. I went nuts. My dad went nuts. Everyone went nuts. Hell, Southern Cal went nuts. We posted Junior Senior for the first time ever, because what else is there to do but dance? And we all started to ask ourselves if this team actually had some greatness left in them, and they did.

How big of a win was this? How much did it affect the trajectory of Iowa's program? Consider this. Coming into the game, Iowa was 19-20 in their last 39 games. Starting at Penn State 2008, Iowa's 19-3. Coming into the game, Ricky Stanzi was 3-3 in starts. Starting at Penn State 2008, Stanzi is 18-2, and it's really a judgment call if you even want to include the jNWU loss. Name one more important win in the Ferentz era. 

But moreover, Kirk Ferentz has proven he can win without the Bobs, Ricky Stanzi has become the President, Iowa now has a BCS win in the last 50 years, and things are pretty fucking awesome right now. Maybe that's different if Murray misses the kick, or if Mossbrucker attempts it and it goes either way. Maybe. But those are questions for the imagination, and from where we're standing right now, this is the biggest game in Iowa-PSU history, and a lock for the top three Kirk Ferentz-coached games ever.