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The Iowa offense struggles (mightily) but once again, the Hawkeye defense and special teams propelled the No. 3 Hawkeyes over the No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions

Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

Down 13-3 early in the first half against the No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions, things looked grim for Spencer Petras and the No. 3 Iowa Hawkeyes in Kinnick Stadium. Petras was struggling to get things moving against a stout Penn State defense, and on the opposite end of the field, Sean Clifford and his offense were making mistakes but moving down the field with relative ease.

That is, until Jack Campbell found ad big opening on a critical third down and brought Clifford down to his field, a hit that would take him out of the game and change the course of things in favor of the Hawkeyes, who turned things around to pull out a 23-20 victory in Kinnick Stadium.

It wasn’t always pretty, particularly for the Iowa offense, but once again, they made plays when it mattered most. Petras’ line on the day: 17/31 with 2 touchdowns and an interception, and a frustrating day at the offense, as well as a gorgeous throw to Nico Ragaini for what ended up being the game-winning 44-yard touchdown after a series of stalled drives that resulted in field goals.

Aiding Petras was the stout Iowa defense, getting two interceptions apiece on the Penn State quarterbacks, and Tory Taylor, whose critical punts, particularly with Roberson in at quarterback, were the difference maker in the game.

Who knows how things could have gone with Clifford in the game for sixty minutes, but that fact doesn’t matter right now. What matters is that Iowa is 6-0 and the sky is the limit for this crew for the rest of the season.

Iowa’s first drive seemed to have potential, with a good combo of passing and rushes from Tyler Goodson, but got stalled at around the 50, with set up a beautiful Tory Taylor punt that bounced just right to have Penn State’s first try starting at their own 2 hardline.

Sean Clifford responded to the poor field position by...immediately throwing a pick to Jestin Jacobs, who was sagging on a short out route to the corner. Unfortunately, the Penn State defense put a lot of pressure on Petras, causing a sack on third down and an early 3-0 lead for Iowa with 11:08 remaining in the first quarter.

In response, Penn State marched down the field on their first true drive of the game, with the defense stopping the run with ease, but struggling in pass protecting, including an untimely pass interference call on Jack Koerner, which led to a quick Penn State touchdown.

Penn State’s pressure really messed with Petras, who started 1 for 5 for 15 yards and got sacked in each of the first two drives. Coverage on the corners made things difficult for him as well, causing most of those incompletions to be thrown out of bounds.

Koerner redeemed himself on Penn State’s next drive. As Penn State was once again driving with ease, Sean Clifford bombed it to the end zone just a bit too hard, having his pass fall right into Koerner’s hands in the end zone.

Petras’ response was to throw an interception of his own. Here’s how well things started off for Petras and the Iowa offense:

is that bad?

On Penn State’s first throw after the turnover, Clifford found a wide open receiver for a 30-yard gain that put them right back in the red zone. Two plays later, Clifford found the end zone with his legs and gave the Nittany Lions an early 14-3 lead with still over 3 minutes left in the game.

The second quarter started much of the same, with Penn State moving down the field with relative ease. But a Jack Campbell blitz on 3rd and 7 near the Iowa end zone forced Clifford into a bad throw, limiting the Nittany Lions to 3 points.

Iowa’s next drive looked like it was going to be a three-and-out before Charlie Jones’ defender had a pass interference called on him, giving Iowa new life. Petras finally completed two more passes — giving him four on the day with over 1.5 quarters played — before completing his fifth to Jones, who found the end zone to make things interesting at 17-10 with just over 7 minutes left in the half.

Things got even more interesting when the game came back from commercial break after the kickoff with Clifford heading to the locker room. Penn State’s backup, Ta’Quan Roberson, struggled immediately, fumbling his first snap, nearly throwing a pick on his second, and getting false starts on two consecutive plays, backing Penn State up nearly into the Iowa end zone.

With the Kinnick atmosphere going back to being electric, momentum seemed to go back to the Hawkeyes, but Iowa was forced to punt, with Taylor once again pinning the Nittany Lions deep into their own territory.

Two plays later, Robinson went deep, finding Riley Moss for the Nittany Lions’ third interception of the game, but it came at a high cost, as Moss went down with what appeared to be a non-contact leg injury.

Once again, Iowa couldn’t do anything on offense, going three and out and giving the ball right back to Penn State, and making an extremely questionable call to not go for it on fourth and short.

As the second half got underway, Clifford returned in a t-shirt, and there was no news on Moss’ injury, but he apparently wasn’t out on the field for warmups. Roberson immediately caused the Nittany Lions to go three-and-out.

Despite this, the Penn State defensive pressure continued making it brutal to move down the field for the Iowa offense, causing another quick Hawkeye punt. On the ensuing Penn State drive, Roberson finally got into a groove as the Nittany Lions focused more on Roberson running and throwing short passes, resulting in Penn State moving swiftly down the field, but Craig was able to sack Roberson on a critical third down and giving Penn State a 20-10 lead after a 44-yard field goal.

Brian Ferentz’s questionable play calling continued on Iowa’s next drive, with a strange decision to run on 2nd and long, but the Hawks were at least able to come up with a field goal of their own in response — a 48(!) yarder.

Both teams traded unsuccessful drives from there, with special teams playing a crucial component in setting opposing offenses up for difficult drives down the field. Taylor bombed another punt within the 5, allowing for a quick 3-and-out.

On Iowa’s next drive, Kegan Johnson ripped off a 40 yard reception that got Iowa into the red zone, and yet, Iowa ran three straight plays for negative yards again, resulting in another Iowa field goal.

And yet, one again Roberson and the Penn State offense continued their downward spiral, getting called for a chop block on third down and then its fourth false start of the game on the ensuing play, leading to 3rd and 29 near the Iowa end zone, where Seth Benson brought the heat and pressured Roberson into an incomplete pass.

One play later, Petras rolled out to his right and found a wide open Ragaini, who burned his defender on a misdirection, got wide open and put on the burners to the end zone to give Iowa its first lead of the game at 23-20 with 6:26 to go in the game.

Penn State’s response looked iffy to start, with another false start, but Roberson moved the ball with his legs and looking like they might move down the field. And yet, on 4th and 3, Penn State turned it over on downs with a huge stop from Jack Campbell behind the line of scrimmage.

And yet, nothing can come easy for this team, as Iowa was quickly forced into a three-and-out of their own (again), thanks mostly in part to another strange play call from Brian Ferentz that failed to come to fruition on a crucial third down. But our Lord and Savior Tory Taylor punted another bomb, this time within the 10 yard line, creating a difficult field for Roberson.

Roberson tried to move the ball down field with his arm I response, but couldn’t find his receivers. Finally, on 4th and 10, the quarterback was picked off by Matt Hankins (who was then called for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, lol).

From there, the Hawkeyes went into the victory formation, but couldn’t run out the clock. Penn State got the ball back with 39 seconds and no timeouts, but it didn’t matter. Roberson couldn’t covert, turning it over on downs with 2 seconds left, and put Iowa to 6-0 on the season.

Never in doubt, right?