I cycled through a lot of different versions of this intro. I scrapped them all because what set-up could possibly do justice to this beautiful grotesqu erie we all witnessed? It was simultaneously the most gorgeous, ugly, joyous, miserable, fun, stressful football game I have seen, If not ever, then in a very long time. I’m frankly exhausted, but this game showed everything great and awful about Ferentzball, about the 2021 Iowa Hawkeyes, and the fickle whims of college football. It was a game that felt kinda forgettable but that I will never forget.
In this generational shindig, Iowa started with the ball and got it to midfield. While they went no further, it set up our Amazin’ Aussie, Tory Taylor, for the first of a series of immaculate punts. (Jahan Dotson ended the game fielding punts at the six to save field position.) Using his pitching wedge of a leg, Taylor dropped the ball on the two and the ball bounced straight into the air, with Terry Roberts flying down the field to make sure some fluky physics didn’t cause the ball to go into the end zone.
With their backs against the endz one, Penn State tried to pass their way out of trouble, ironically passing their way into trouble instead. Clifford dropped back, with Seth Benson setting his sights to “sack.” As Benson lassoed Clifford’s leg and gravity started to do its thing, Clifford chucked the ball up to avoid an opening-play safety. His flailing throw found its way to Jestin Jacobs, kneeling in reverence to the football gods near the sideline. Jacobs happily hauled in the divine gift at the PSU 8, setting the offense up with yet another ludicrously short field.
The offense took this opportunity and went “psh.” Iowa gained -9 yards on the drive, a sign of the horrors that awaited Iowa on Penn State’s side of the field. Nearly every time Iowa crossed into Penn State territory was like stepping into the “Swamp of Sadness,” with dreams of touchdowns slowly sinking into the mud as we looked on aghast.
Still, a free field goal in a game where points were going to be at a premium was nothing to sniff at, at least until Penn State scoffed at our three points by slicing through our defense like Jack the Ripper. Clifford was honestly pretty great, quickly finding his speedster wide receivers in the middle of the field on crossers and on routes where the wide out just runs to the soft spot in the zone. Iowa helped out with a penalty, but it looked Jiffy-smooth en route to a one-yard touchdown run for Noah Cain.
On the flip side, Brian Ferentz and this Iowa offense looked utterly flummoxed by Penn State’s athletic and confusing defense. Iowa’s second straight drive also went backwards, with PSU controlling the line of scrimmage and seriously stressing out Spencer Petras. Honestly, it looked like every single play in Iowa’s offensive playbook had a “Ha ha, yeah right” sneer next to it in the playbook.
Clifford went right back to his Iowa defense-carving ways, easing his way into Iowa territory. It was here that he made another mistake. On the previous drive, Clifford had been extraordinarily patient, feasting off of every bit of yardage the defense gave him. But on 2nd-and-6 from the Iowa 43, he got greedy, and took a deep shot to Dotson. Jack Koerner read the play perfectly, running the route and beating Dotson to the ball in the end zone, hauling in his second pick of the year and putting the kibosh on PSU’s scoring opportunity.
Unfortunately, Iowa’s offense returned the favor to PSU just two plays later. On a 2nd-and-6 from their own 24, Petras dropped back and unloaded an antsy, jittery, high throw over the middle of the field. He was trying to hit Nico Ragaini, but the high throw hit Ragaini's hand and bounced to Jaquan Brisker at the Iowa 40, where he was promptly tackled. It only took Penn State four plays to get into the end zone on a 4-yard Clifford run, with most of that yardage coming on a 30-yard pass to KeAndre Lambert-Smith, and suddenly Iowa was in a 14-3 pit.
What offense do you run when down 11 points to an absolute baller of a defense? Iowa rolled with its bread-and-butter, some good ol’ T-Good runs behind Pottebaum. It started with runs of 20, six, and six yards to get into Penn State territory, but they went to the well one too many times, with first-and-10 turning in second-and-12 on a negative run, and then Spencer Petras was unable to complete either of his next two throws. While it was nice to see some life for Iowa’s running game, at 1-for-9 for 14 yards and a pick, Iowa’s passing game had as much life as Bernie’s corpse.
It looked to all the world like Clifford was going to drive the Nittany Lions down the field and back into the end zone, squarely sticking a fork in the soon-to-be done Hawkeyes. Finding either enough passing yards for conversions on third downs or just jogging into open field for first downs, PSU was 5-for-5 on third downs up to that point in the game, and melted their way into the red zone before setting up an extremely consequential 3rd-and-7 from the Iowa 14.
Outside of a couple of hurries, Iowa’s front four just had not gotten to Clifford much. Not wanting him to get too comfortable, Phil Parker sent Jack Campbell on a delayed blitz. Campbell hit Clifford with the force of a 240-pound can of chicken noodle soup, eliciting a panicky overthrow and an incomplete pass. In the short term, Iowa’s first third-down stop forced a field goal, keeping it a two-score game and also keeping hope for an Iowa victory alive, albeit on life-support. We didn’t realize it at the time, but Campbell’s monstrous and perfectly legal hit also took Clifford out for the rest of the game. The injury was never specified, though it looked like he may have gotten his ribs cracked.
Maybe some of you can talk yourselves into this game playing out just the same if Clifford stays in the game. That’s cool. I’m not going to debate football chaos theory with you. I will point out that from this point on, if you include the fuck-ton of penalties on false-starts, Penn State ran something like 48 plays without Clifford for 50 yards. A drop-off from a near-elite quarterback to a guy who didn’t look ready for Division I football seems pretty significant to me.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. At this point, all Iowa knew was that they were getting shellacked in every non-punting phase of the game and the offense needed to generate some production to get the ferocious fans something to cheer for. Iowa got a break with a pass interference call on Penn State on a 3rd-and-6, then was able to grind out a first down before a 3rd-and-9 at the Penn State 38. Up to this point, if there were gaps in Penn State’s coverage resulting from their relentless blitzing, Petras wasn’t finding them, until this play. Penn State sent a guy on a blitz and there was space underneath the coverage. Ragaini came short on a shallow cross. The offensive line picked up the blitz initially, but the protection started to crumble. Petras held out just long enough before getting crushed to float the ball out to Ragaini in stride who sprinted into the open field and down the sideline for 22 yards. Iowa finished off the drive with a pick play to Charlie Jones a couple of plays later on the left side, as he got the ball in space and dove for the left pylon for a desperately-needed touchdown.
Down seven and with PSU’s back-up quarterback in, the energy in Kinnick exploded from a general and persistent hum to an all-encompassing fervor. I legitimately could not hear the broadcast for most of the rest of this game. It was in this swirling storm of animosity that Ta’Quan Roberson tried to man the helm of Penn State’s suddenly shell-shocked offense. It went horribly, but the staggering thing is that Penn State couldn’t snap the ball because they could not hear a guy clap from ten feet away. Most of Penn State’s drives either went nowhere or backwards from here on out in part because they could not function on a rudimentary level thanks in large part to the lunatics at Kinnick.
Iowa didn’t do anything else the rest of the half offensively, including squandering really good field position set up by a truly amazing interception in which Riley Moss read the route, tracked the ball, sprinted and dove underneath another overthrow to Dotson (and also managed to get hurt in the process). But no matter. With Penn State’s offense neutralized and Iowa down only a touchdown, Iowa’s outlook was a lot more promising than the bleak place we found ourselves in earlier.
The second half started with each team punting before Roberson used his legs and a couple of throws to move Penn State well into field goal range and a potentially devastating touchdown. On 3rd-and-6 at the Iowa 15, with Iowa again needing to keep the damage to a field goal, Parker dialed up another blitz. Roberson saw the blitz, but had no idea what to do with the ball, scrambling in the backfield before Deontae Craig brought him to the turf.
A 10-point deficit might not seem insurmountable, but with Iowa’s offensively-challenged offense against one of the absolute best defenses in college football, it was Mt. Kilimanjaro. James Franklin knew it. Kirk Ferentz knew it. This game was going to come down to Iowa’s ability to scrap and claw away at that lead, with Penn State’s offense and punter playing keepaway the rest of the game.
Iowa started that process on the very next possession. The drive featured a lot of Goodson, with Petras adding a tough-as-nails completion to Sam LaPorta for crucial 3rd-down conversion. (Astoundingly, this was LaPorta’s only completion of the game.) The drive stalled out at the PSU 30. The resulting 48-yard field goal try was no gimme on a somewhat windy day, but Caleb Shudek continued being basically perfect on the year, nonchalantly knocking it home to bring the PSU lead back to just seven points.
From here, Penn State went three-and-out. Iowa didn’t score, but did manage to move the ball, setting up more punting mastery from Tory Taylor, pinning Penn State again inside their own 5-yard line. This meant that when Penn State went three-and-out and punted, Iowa got the ball on the 50. Things looked bleak on 2nd-and-10 when Petras hit Keegan Johnson for a little 5-yard curl on the outside. It didn’t look like much, but Penn State just couldn’t tackle him, with Keegan bouncing off of defenders while he and I both thought “please don’t fumble” before being brought down by a pride of Nittany Lions at the PSU 8. Iowa’s rancid red zone play continued, so Iowa settled for yet another field goal, but the mountain peak got ever so slightly more visible.
Penn State started with the ball at their own 25, but this possession was such a disaster for them that they ended up punting from their own 6-yard line, thanks to no positive plays, two false starts, and an illegal chop block penalty (which Ferentz accepted on a failed third down conversion because he thought so little of Penn State’s offense at the time). In a game in which every yard was precious, these mistakes were huge. Jordan Stout, who had been defying Iowa’s opportunity to flip field position all game, uncorked his only bad punt of the day, a not terrible 38-yarder, but given the starting field position it meant Iowa was starting its next drive on the Penn State 44.
With every second that passed in this game, the pressure on Iowa’s offense to take the lead mounted. Wait too long to make your move, and you risk having to get one-dimensional against a truly terrifying defense. Iowa had been throwing mostly useless jabs against PSU all game long. These jabs didn’t so much wear PSU down as amuse them with their futility, but they did the job of setting up one gargantuan haymaker. Iowa hadn’t really taken a play-action deep shot all game, running into a stacked box all game long. Finally, Iowa let loose a whale of a play call, faking the play-action rollout to the right that they have trotted out since time immemorial. All the routes went right, except one. Nico Ragaini angled to the right before cutting left away from the entire Penn State, some of the only separation we saw all game. Petras hit Ragaini in stride, who sprinted down the left sideline and dove to the pylon for one of the most electrifying and important Hawkeye touchdowns ever.
Having made it to the summit, it was up to the defense to hold the lead. Roberson got as close as the Iowa 47 before eschewing open players downfield for a check-down to the running back who was tackled short of the sticks on 4th-and-3. From there, Matt Hankins padded his interception stats to Penn State’s benefit, and we got, to my knowledge anyway, the first FU victory formation before you could actually run out the clock in college football history.
Here we are, the next day, and I still feel a bizarre mixture of tension and relief, but boy howdy did this once-a-generation game live up to the hype. We can belabor the problems with Iowa’s offense and defense, but those problems were going to be there win or lose, and winning is a lot better. Iowa now has oodles of room for error in winning the Big Ten West and will have enough of an inside track to the College Football Playoff that haters will come out of the woodwork waiting for Iowa to be “exposed.” That day may come, but until then “WOOOOOOOOOOO!”
*I am totally fine accepting the reality that Penn State wins this game with Sean Clifford. I also accept that if Ricky Stanzi doesn’t break his leg against Northwestern in 2009 Iowa beats Northwestern and maybe wins the Big Ten. Football is a violent, cruel, and unfair game. Penn State got dealt an unlucky blow, which sucks for them and Sean Clifford in particular, but this shit happens in this gorgeous, stupid game.
*This defense is great, but they legitimately got worked for a quarter-and-a-half for the first time all year. It was a product of growing pains for the defensive line, a great quarterback, and the one meaningful design flaw in Iowa’s defense: the quarterback scramble. It won’t be until Nebraska that Iowa plays another first-rate scrambler, but teams are definitely going to notice the ease at which quarterbacks can pick up aggravating first downs with their legs.
*Caleb Shudek and Tory Taylor were utterly stupendous. If either one is even slightly less marvelous, this game breaks a different way. Taylor kept Penn State perpetually in the shadow of their own goalpost and we absolutely could not afford a missed kick and both dudes delivered better than the stork nine months after Valentine’s Day.
*Iowa’s offense is going to struggle against athletic, sound defenses. It is a bummer, but it is reality. I think it is more than fair to heave some criticism on Brian Ferentz here. Sure, our line couldn’t really block their dudes and our receivers couldn’t get separation, but there had to be more opportunities for hot reads against PSU’s blitzes. (Though props for calling the play-action to Ragaini at the perfect time.) Also, say what you will about Spencer Petras as a passer, but that dude is took a lot of shots and kept plugging away.
*The crowd absolutely made the difference today. That is not hyperbole. Iowa simply loses this game on a neutral field. I was extremely bummed that I couldn’t attend, but based on my television speakers, this game surpassed 2003 Michigan and 2010 Wisconsin for the loudest Iowa games ever.