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A Brief History of Iowa against Penn State Under Kirk Ferentz

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Penn State dominated the Iowa Hawkeyes in Happy Valley last year, but Iowa has historically had tremendous success against top-5 opponents inside Kinnick Stadium. They’ve also had Penn State’s number in the past.

Iowa v Penn State
Can Nate Stanley channel his inner Ricky Stanzi?
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

This weekend’s contest with Penn State marks by far the biggest test the Hawkeyes have faced this young season. The Nittany Lions enter Kinnick Stadium Saturday unbeaten at 3-0, ranked No. 4 in the nation while boasting not one, but two Heisman candidates.

They possess an explosive offense that ranks 35th in the nation in total offense, averaging 469 yards per game (282 passing and 187 rushing) and 11th in scoring offense at a gawdy 47 points per game. Iowa’s offense is no slouch, averaging 33 points per game (54th nationally) on 398 yards per game (65th in the country). But they’ll be facing off with a Nittany Lion defense giving up only 4.7 points per game, good enough for 2nd in the nation. It seems like a tall task. But is it something the Hawkeyes can overcome?

Here’s what history tells us:

Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa has had quite a bit of success playing up to the level of competition it is facing. Since KF became the head man in 1999, the Hawkeyes are 4-9 against top 5 teams. That may not sound great, but consider the following:

Three of those nine losses came in 1999 and 2000 when the program was in a state of transition. During those two seasons, Iowa went a combined 4-19. During what might be the best 3-year stretch under Kirk Ferentz from 2002-2004 when Iowa went a combined 31-7, won 2 Big Ten Championships and finished ranked in the top 10 all three years, the Hawkeyes didn’t face off against a single top-10 team.

So the real sample here comes from later in Kirk’s tenure. If we look at the last decade (2007 - present), the record looks much better. In that time span, the Hawkeyes are 4-3 against top-5 opponents. More good news for Iowa fans? None of those three losses have come in Kinnick Stadium.

You read that right. The Hawkeyes have not lost a game to a top-5 team inside Kinnick since the infamous College Gameday contest against #1 OSU in 2006. Since then, Iowa is 3-0 at home in such matchups.

In that span, the Hawkeyes have faced off against Penn State twice while they’ve been ranked in the top 5. Both were Iowa wins.

The first came in 2008 with Iowa unranked and looking for direction after a 5-4 start to the season. The four losses had come by a combined 12 points and the roster was loaded with future NFL talent.

Ricky Stanzi was still coming into his element and the offense was leaning on RB Shonn Greene. The student section was filled with “Gang Greene” shirts, hoping to push Greene into the national discussion for the Heisman. And the defense was absolutely loaded with the likes of Bradley Fletcher, Amari Spievey, Pat Angerer, Jeremiah Hunter, AJ Edds, Tyler Sash, Brett Greenwood, Mitch King, Matt Kroul, Broderick Binns, Christian Ballard and Adrian Clayborn.

The game was a bit of back and forth with the Hawkeyes getting on top early, but struggling offensively through the first half. The defense was at near peak bend-but-don’t-break form under defensive coordinator Norm Parker and Iowa hung around. Following an interception from Sash, the offense was able to march down the field and set up a 31-yard FG from Daniel Murray. The rest, as they say, is history.

And yes, I was one of the thousands who rushed the field with time still remaining on the clock. Sorry not sorry.

The very next year, the Hawkeyes traveled to Happy Valley to take on #5 Penn State in the midst of a white out. Unlike the previous season, this matchup came early in the year on September 26th. While Iowa was again unranked, they entered this showdown unbeaten.

However, there were again offensive struggles. That incredible defense, after giving up 10 first-quarter points, managed to nearly outscore the offense in the first half after forcing a safety early in the second quarter. The offense did manage a field goal prior to the half.

Trailing 10-5 with just over 12:30 to play in the game, defensive end Adrian Clayborn took matters into his own hands and gave the Hawkeyes the lead.

From there, it was all just gravy as the defense came to play. They forced 2 more interceptions and a fumble, not giving up a single point beyond the 10 in the first quarter. They accounted for 8 of Iowa’s eventual 21 points via the blocked punt return and the safety.

Running back Adam Robinson added a TD and the Hawkeyes mustered another FG en route to a 21-10 win. The white out crowd in Happy Valley was stunned. And wet. And it was glorious.

Relive the highlights with me for a few moment.

All told, the Hawkeyes are 12-14 all-time against Penn State, despite the national perception of the Nittany Lions as a blueblood program. Under Kirk Ferentz, Iowa is 8-5 against PSU. At one point, the Hawkeyes rattled off 5 in a row and 6 out of 7 against PSU under legendary coach Joe Paterno.

Since then, things have taken a bit of a turn. Paterno got the final win in the matchup in 2011. The 2012 Iowa team was a bit of a disaster and new coach Bill O’Brien throttled the Hawkeyes 38-14.

The series then took a bit of a hiatus, not playing in 2013-2015. When the two teams met again last season, it got ugly. We all remember the beatdown in Happy Valley in November. Iowa came into the season with high expectations, but the campaign had already gone south by the time they traveled east to PSU.

The Nittany Lions were loaded last year and got out to a quick 21-0 lead. They never looked back as Saquon Barkley racked up 167 rushing yards and a TD, as well as a 44-yard receiving touchdown en route to a 41-14 win. QB Trace McSorley finished 11/18 for 240 yards and 2 TDs with no INTs.

Those weapons return to Iowa City Saturday evening. Will the results be similar to last year? Or will they look more like the Michigan game that followed the very next week? History says the odds are in Iowa’s favor, but Penn State has a pair of incredible weapons which are unlike anything Iowa faced during their past successes against Penn State and other top-5 teams. Can the defense contain them? Can the offense keep up?

Saturday night under the Kinnick lights can’t get here soon enough.