The #3 Iowa Hawkeyes (6-0, 3-0) displayed some throwback toughness and resiliency in their 23-20 win over the #4 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-1, 2-1). Though many aspects of the game left plenty to be desired, the Hawks came away with a win by doing what they’ve done throughout this year: take advantage of opportunities. More importantly, Iowa demonstrated timely chunk plays to augment the ball control style we’ve seen much of this season.
After Iowa went down 14-3, the game had a very ominous feel to it. The Hawks looked shell shocked and Kinnick Stadium was a shell of itself. Some successful running plays were able to steady an offense which was mired in inaccurate passes and shoddy line play. Though PSU’s ensuing drive added a field goal to their total, Iowa had established something on offense they could lean on. They finished with 110 yards which really undersells the success they had - adjusted for sacks/kneels, Iowa’s rushing total was 141 yards on 38 attempts for an adequate 3.7 YPC. The Hawkeyes also used the run game to establish a dominant time of possession differential of nearly 12 minutes.
There were also plenty of questions coming in about Iowa regarding whether they could come from behind and they demonstrated, without a doubt, the offense is capable of doing what it needs to in that regard. Keegan Johnson (how good is that guy?) turned a fairly routine play into a 42-yard gain while Brian Ferentz dialed up a pseudo-exotic to free Nico Ragaini for a 44-yard touchdown to go ahead on the following possession. While the offense hemmed and hawed, it felt like they only pressed once: Petras’ second quarter interception which led to Penn State’s second touchdown.
Spencer Petras also took a ton of hits and came back stronger. Those were the types of things he didn’t have in his pocket and, while he never looks great in those moments (someone bring Rick Heller in to teach him how to slide!), he’s bounced back in ways that past great Hawkeye QBs have.
Now, it is never fun to find out the answer to whether a team can come back but being able to do it against that defense? A defense who, prior to tonight, had not given up more than 20 points this season? An unmitigated success.
The Hawkeyes also went toe to toe with a truly elite special teams unit. Jordan Stout averaged 50 yards/punt but faltered once - a 38-yard-boot which led to Ragaini’s TD - while Tory Taylor masterfully pinned Penn State time and again. It made life hell for Penn State’s offense and kept Kinnick Stadium - how many crowds have been better than yesterday? - in a controlled state of pandemonium.
Iowa’s defense also dealt with an injury to Riley Moss after he gathered his fourth interception. Terry Roberts backed up his sensational special teams play with solid first team reps on defense as he didn’t seem to miss a beat. (Does Moss catch the deep ball Roberts lost in the air, though?)
Now for the questions: the first being, does it happen if Sean Clifford not being injured? Ultimately, it is irrelevant. Perhaps it will be to PSU’s benefit if they find their way into the playoff discussion without winning the conference. But for Iowa, you take every win you can get any way you can get it. I settle on - we just don’t know! PSU’s final TD drive was on their shortest field (39 yards) and they were constantly pinned. Sean Clifford certainly tilts it in some direction but he had his share of faults - two interceptions - in the time he did play.
Iowa’s red zone offense left plenty to be desired as well. Iowa scored just one touchdown in three trips - right in line with PSU’s season numbers - but the playcalling was disastrous! Another foray into a straight ahead Wildcat run, multiple sacks, weird route combinations. YEASH. Caleb Shudak continued to prove his mettle, though. 3/3 and now 8/9 on the season. His only miss was the 50+ yarder on an errant snap against Iowa State.
In line with dubious coaching decisions. There were a number of times Iowa was just weird. End of first half ... um, what? End of game ... um,,, double what? In both instances Iowa passed up opportunities to advance the ball to play the field position game to hilarious proportions. It was in line with Kirk Ferentz’s tendency to be risk averse but still questionable.
Now, where do we go from here? Iowa is in the driver’s seat for a Big Ten West title and potential College Football Playoff berth. They’ve got a target on their back and were able to dispatch their most capable opponent to date. None come with the pedigree or hype of any opponent Iowa has faced so far. There ability to be self-motivating will be tested through the rest of the season.
But with goals so high looking so obtainable, Iowa certainly looks the part of a team who can maintain the status they’ve acquired halfway through the season.