Penn State 21 - Iowa 19: Punxsutawney

By Patrick Vint on September 23, 2017 at 11:25 pm
Yeah, that happened.
© Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports
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Did you guys ever see Groundhog Day?

There is so much about Iowa's 21-19 loss to Penn State to discuss, so much to break down within the first fifty-seven minutes, things like how ungodly good Saquon Barkley is and how ungodly good Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa will be.  Things like how all of the things that weren't working for Iowa's offense in the first three quarters paid off when Iowa countered them in the fourth.  Things like how the Iowa defense held up in most Norm-Parkerian fashion while the offense ran an elaborate 45-minute rope-a-dope.  Things like whether Akrum Wadley is the greatest Iowa offensive threat of this century.

But those things are going to have to wait, because we're just going to talk about those last three minutes and Groundhog Day.  For the two of you who have never seen it, Groundhog Day is essentially the story of a man who keeps living the same day over and over, until one day, by doing his best to be a good man, he breaks the loop.  It's a comic masterpiece.  You should stop and watch it now.

With 2:39 left in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's instant classic between Iowa and Penn State, Hawkeyes defensive end Anthony Nelson blocked a Penn State field goal attempt.  The score was 15-13, and anyone with a grasp on recent history knew what that meant:

Iowa had beaten Michigan in the 1985 Game of the Century under the lights of Kinnick Stadium on a field goal.  Iowa had beaten then-undefeated Penn State in 2008 under the lights of Kinnick Stadium on a field goal.  Iowa had beaten Michigan last year under the lights of Kinnick Stadium on a field goal.  And so, with the field goal blocked and 150 seconds left to play, history was primed to repeat itself.

For the first time in what felt like all night, Iowa's offense broke loose.  A pass interference call and two completions later, the Hawkeyes were in field goal range, and we were trying to figure out how the offense would bleed off 1:42.

And then it happened: Iowa's offense was finally its best self.

Akrum Wadley took a handoff going left while the offensive line -- and the entire Penn State defense -- flowed right. He was untouched to the end zone, and Iowa had taken a four-point lead.  

And, as we all knew within about five seconds, the loop was broken.  This was not going to be a field goal to win.  This was going to fall to Iowa's defense, which had held up so valiantly all night against the vaunted Penn State offense.

But there's a reason why they're vaunted.  Trace McSorley converted two fourth downs, scrambled for another first down, and completed seven pass attempts over the course of a twelve-play, eighty-yard drive, culminating with a seven-yard touchdown pass on fourth and goal with four seconds remaining, the final play of the game, giving Penn State a 21-19 victory.  Akrum Wadley had broken the loop, but we woke up the next day to a post-apocalyptic hellscape, a bizarro world where '7 Got 6' had been inverted back on us.

McSorley had not performed as well as expected before that last drive.  He had been under constant pressure from an Iowa defense that confused him (and everyone else) with blitzes throughout the game.  McSorley had thrown for 204 yards before the final series, but he'd fumbled twice, had passes knocked down by Iowa's defensive line throughout, and thrown a crucial first-half interception that set up Iowa's first score of the game.

But credit where it's due: McSorley's touchdown pass was flawless, barely over the outstretched fingers of Amani Hooker and into the hands of Juwan Johnson.  The receiver, to his credit, ran a perfect route to get open, capitalizing on Miles Taylor's anticipation of an out route to separate.  And an Iowa defense that had bent beyond its limit but never broke finally, irreconcilably, snapped.

We entered Saturday night not exactly sure of what this Iowa team was yet.  And while McSorley's pass gives Penn State the win and prevents the Hawkeyes from once again playing spoiler under the Kinnick Stadium lights, the 59 minutes and 56 seconds before that pass also confirmed our hopes: That Iowa belongs among the conference's best teams this year.  It doesn't matter much in the aftermath of the gut punch, but Iowa can leave the stadium with its collective head held high and its prospects of a Big Ten West title run well within sight.  We might have broken the cycle of Kinnick Stadium field goals, but we only did so by finding that Iowa is its better self.  

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