One Defining Moment: Penn State

By erut17 on October 11, 2021 at 2:00 pm
go hawks go
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Each week, "One Defining Moment" will dive into the game's most important moment and break it down in all its glory, or in unfortunate cases, its horror. This week: Iowa's play-action touchdown pass, sealing the biggest win at Kinnick in almost 40 years.

Part of what makes sports so special are the lifelong memories they create.  The moments that embed themselves forever into your memory the moment they happen. The heartbreak and the elation that you experience, knowing full well that it's going to stick with you long after the final whistle.

Saturday's game was always bound to produce those moments and it did not disappoint. Every turn of events felt massive, as momentum ebbed and flowed between the teams. For 90% of the game Saturday, Hawkeye fans grappled with the disappointing results, afraid that the memories were bound for nightmare rather than folklore. The defense was giving up points and the offense was stuck in the mud. Even knocking out Penn State's QB wasn't enough to give the Hawkeyes a firm hold on the game.*

Just as it started to feel as though Iowa was going to let a perfect opportunity for a signature win slip through their fingers, the Hawks dialed up a perfect play-action pass, taking advantage of the tendency they'd established all game and breaking through to score the winning touchdown.

* - The true game-changing play, for the second week in a row, was likely Iowa's opponent losing a game-changing player to injury. I'm not going to focus too much on it here because:

  1. Focusing on a college kid getting injured feels cruel.
  2. Iowa's offense still had a 14-point hole to climb out of even after the QB shift.
  3. While I think there's something to the fact that Iowa's physical style of defense, especially when coupled with an uptempo, spread-type offense, lends itself to injuries, I also know Iowa isn't out there trying to injure their opponents. Zooming in on the play almost implies that Iowa achieved a goal with the injury.
  4. The play-action bomb is the play we're all going to remember from this game and it was cool as hell.

The Moment

The Hawks fell behind early before completely stifling Penn State's offense after the QB shift. Tory Taylor (PUNTGOD) continually pinned the Nittany Lions deep and the defense -- with a substantial assist from a deafening Kinnick crowd -- over and over again gave the Iowa offense great scoring opportunities. Iowa banged its head against the brick wall that was PSU's defense until late in the fourth quarter when they once again started a drive in Penn State territory. The Kinnick crowd's unease could be felt through the TV as they tried to will their team to victory.

OC Brian Ferentz, after spending most of the second half playing conservatively, decided to open up the playbook and run a play-action shot on first down. Spencer Petras had all the time in the world and floated a beauty of a pass to a wide-open Nico Ragaini. The rest I barely remember because I was too busy screaming.

Rumor has it Ragaini made it to the end zone.



A Closer Look

Iowa loves to run the ball. This isn't news to anyone here. Over and over Saturday, it felt as though Iowa was determined to run on first down, no matter how many Nittany Lions were in the box. I wanted to believe -- and was texting and talking to anyone that would listen-- that Iowa was setting up the play-action pass, but as the game got later and later I began to worry that Ferentz was never going to pull the trigger. Even more infuriating, the Hawks had run the play-action boot last week against Maryland and found success, and had even started the game against PSU off with a similar play design (on first down no less!) and picked up an easy first down.


Thank goodness, then, that Iowa finally decided to go back to the template in crunch time. On the snap, the offensive line moved left as if they were running another outside zone play. Petras sold the play fake and rolled right. The Penn State secondary eventually realized that it was a pass and scrambled to drop into coverage, following Iowa's receivers as they ran their crossing routes from left to right.

All except Nico Ragaini.

In a genius play design, Ragaini began his route flowing across the field left to right. We've seen this play dozens of times and watched Petras hit Laporta in the flat or someone on a curl. This time though, near mid-field, Ragaini turned back towards the left sideline, against the flow of play. 

It was a bold play call that required a well-sold play fake, a perfectly timed route, and a quarterback with the arm and the accuracy to hit his receiver across the field, 20 yards away. If you can execute it, though, it's nearly impossible to cover for a defense that's already trying to catch up after the fake handoff. 

Iowa ran the play to perfection. Watch the man assigned to Ragaini (#16 in the middle of the screen, about 12 yards downfield) try to keep up with all of the changing directions.

Petras didn't miss and threw a beautiful deep ball. For all of the flaws we've pointed out about Petras, he has been impressively accurate on his deep throws and takes advantage when the defense leaves him an open deep shot (the fake screen TD throw to LaPorta against CSU being another example).

Ragaini hauled in the throw and immediately turned upfield to head towards the goal line. His dive for the pylon may have been academic against another team, but Iowa's ineptitude in the red zone Saturday meant that if Nico hadn't gone all out for the score, there was no guarantee the Hawks were going to be able to punch it in from short range. 

Luckily, we avoided the potential heartbreak and Kinnick was rocking, as loud as it's ever been, celebrating Iowa finally breaking through and taking the lead.


Saturday's game wasn't pretty. I spent most of the first half hoping that Iowa would just find a way to keep it close. But no matter how much the dread began to creep up in me, the players and coaches never flinched. They took every single body shot from Penn State and found a way to withstand it. Slowly but surely, they tilted the field and clawed back on the scoreboard, until they finally burst through with the touchdown to Ragaini.

There's no way to overstate the impact of that play. It's the signature play of what may become Iowa's signature season. It's the highlight that will play forever in Iowa retrospectives and Iowa fans' minds. It probably deserves to be up there with "The Kick" and with Tate's hail mary against LSU. That throw won Iowa its biggest home game since 1985.

And as soon as it happened, everyone decided that Iowa was lucky. Lucky that Clifford was hurt or that they kept racking up interceptions, which "aren't sustainable".

All I have to say to that is, fine. Maybe it's a different game if Clifford doesn't get injured. Maybe it's a different game if one of Tory Taylor's punts bounces into the end zone instead of dying inside the five. Maybe it's a different game if Tyler Linderbaum misses a block on first-and-10 in the middle of the second quarter. My point is, Sport is an amalgamation of maybes. Whoever converts more maybes into positives wins. 

So yes, maybe Iowa caught a few lucky breaks. But you know what else is true? Iowa won. In a painful, nerve-wracking, electrifying affair, Iowa came out on top. Don't feel like the Hawks should have to apologize for that. Don't let someone else complaining take away from your enjoyment of that. Iowa is #2 in the country and has the chance at a magical season. Let's enjoy it, no matter how much we "deserve" it.

Go. Iowa. Awesome.

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