The recent history in the Iowa-Penn State series has been full of a lot of pain -- and Hawkeye defeats. Iowa entered this game having lost six straight to the Nittany Lions, including each of the last four years against the James Franklin-led squads. But there was a little bit of history on Iowa's side: years ending in 0 have been good to Iowa in this rivalry. 2000? Iowa bounced Penn State 26-23 in overtime. 2010? Iowa throttled Penn State 24-3. So what about 2020? Back on the W train; Iowa took down Penn State 41-21 thanks to a strong performance from Iowa's ground game and an opportunistic defense that forced four turnovers.
* Iowa started strong -- again.
Fast starts haven't been much of a problem for Iowa this season and that was again the case against Penn State. After forcing a punt on Penn State's opening drive, Iowa marched down the field and scored on their own opening drive, courtesy a 40-yard Keith Duncan field goal. Penn State punched back with their best drive of the day, a 14-play, 75-yard drive that methodically exploited Iowa's unwillingness to spy on QB runs or to play tighter coverage. But Iowa outscored Penn State 21-0 in the second quarter, thanks to a long drive of their own and two drives set up by short fields, one by a fumble recovery and one by a turnover on downs. Iowa was outstanding in the second quarter, minus one three-and-out drive where they lost 13 yards. The running game was churning, Spencer Petras was (mostly) on-point, and the defense was stiffening when it mattered. Why can't they make the whole game out of second quarters?
* Iowa had another terrible, horrible, no good, very bad third quarter.
That's not entirely fair -- Iowa did manage to score a touchdown in the third and extend their lead to 31-7 after turning a Penn State fumble into a scoring drive. But everything after that? Pure nightmare fuel. Petras turned the ball over on a fumble after a bad snap; Penn State immediately hit Iowa for a touchdown pass on the next play. Iowa tried to respond with a scoring drive... only for Keith Duncan to pull a 49-yard field goal attempt. On the very next play, Penn State again called the touchdown play, this time from 68 yards out. After a two-point conversion, Iowa's 31-7 lead had been trimmed to 31-21 and things were starting to get a whole lot more uncomfortable.
* The defense bailed Iowa out -- again.
The Iowa defense came into this game with a +4 turnover margin that was tied for third-best in the Big Ten, thanks to 10 forced turnovers. They added to that tally with four takeaways in this game, a pair of fumble recoveries and a pair of interceptions. Iowa didn't squander those takeover opportunities, either -- they scored 24 points off them. The daggers for Iowa came from the interceptions, which both came in the fourth quarter. Iowa responded to Penn State's 68-yard touchdown bomb to cut the lead to 10 points by... eating up three minutes of clock, but stalling out and punting from midfield. Considering that Penn State's offense had literally scored touchdowns on their last two plays, that was not a promising development.
Enter: Chauncy Golston, who hauled in a pass deflected at the line of scrimmage by Daviyon Nixon. Golston's takeaway gave Iowa the ball at the PSU 23-yard line and stopped any momentum PSU had building in its tracks. Iowa's own offense got inside the 10-yard line, but couldn't find the end zone and had to settle for a 24-yard Keith Duncan field goal. Scoring points was nice, but it only took a two-score Iowa lead and made it... a two-score Iowa lead. The defense stiffened again on the next drive, with Golston recording a key sack on 2nd and 10 to force a 3rd-and-long incompletion that led to a Penn State punt. Iowa went three-and-out and punted the ball right back to Penn State, down 13 with about three minutes to play.
Enter: Daviyon Nixon, who iced the victory with an incredibly athletic pick-six -- a NIX SIX, if you will.
Look at that. The height on the jump, snaring the ball -- high-pointing it like a damn defensive back!, and then the run-back, complete with a Euro-step to shake any Penn State pursuers and allowing him to lope into the end zone. Game, set, match.
Iowa's defensive line made a ton of big plays in this game:
- Daviyon Nixon: 5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 QB hurry, 1 pass deflection, 1 INT, 1 TD
- Chauncey Golston: 4 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT
- Zach VanValkenburg: 4 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 2 fumble recoveries
- Jack Heflin: 1 tackle, 1 TFL, 1 sack
* The running game did work -- again.
After cracking 220+ in wins over Michigan State and Minnesota, Iowa wasn't able to crack two bills on the ground against Penn State. But they did have an effective run game, amassing 175 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. A 3.8 yards per carry average isn't anything dance about, but when Iowa needed to run the ball in this game, they were able to do so more often than not (except at the end of the game, when Penn State was selling out to stop the run). Once again, it was a tag-team effort on the ground, although the lead partner was not the usual suspect. Tyler Goodson wasn't bad in this game -- he ran for 78 yards and a score on 20 carries -- but he was outshined a bit by his tag partner Mekhi Sargent. Sargent finished with 101 yards and two scores on 15 carries and generally looked like the more impactful runner; he certainly seemed a bit more decisive in this runs, which paid dividends -- he exploded through the creases the Iowa offensive line was opening up on multiple occasions. But it's awfully nice that Iowa can have such a good 1-2 punch in the running game like this; it keeps them both fresh, keeps defenses a bit off-balance, and takes advantage of Iowa's greatest offensive strength -- the space-movers up front.
* Petras was... fine.
On a day where the running game and the defense did the heavy lifting, the main thing Spencer Petras needed to do was stay out of the way and keep the offense ticking along. And he did that pretty well; he finished 18/28 for 186 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions. That's certainly not spectacular, but he also avoided the crippling mistakes that could have cost Iowa this game. He did fumble a snap, but it was hard to tell how much of that was his fault and how much was on an uncharacteristically poor snap from Tyler Linderbaum. And he did have a couple ill-advised throws (at least one of which -- a laser into triple coverage -- that probably should have been picked off) but they were thankfully limited. There are obviously still plenty of things to work on -- his pocket presence, putting more touch on his passes, improving his accuracy -- but Petras game managed this game well enough and when he was asked to do more (as in the two-minute drill before half) he responded well.
* Keepin' it 100
Kirk Ferentz hit another big milestone win on Saturday night, notching Big Ten win #100 in his Iowa coaching career. He joined some pretty elite company in the 100-Big Ten club:
Obviously Ferentz was able to hit that milestone because of his incredible longevity; in his post-game comments on BTN, he even poked fun at needing (many) more games to hit the 100-win mark than Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, or Amos Alonzo Stagg. But you don't last 22 years without being a pretty good coach doing some things well and despite our frustrations with him and some of his stylistic tics over the last 20+ years, he's also led Iowa to a lot of success. Congrats, Kirk.