What does it take for Iowa to beat Penn State in Happy Valley? A stout defense and a potent running game, based on yesterday's performance. A bushel of turnovers from the Nittany Lions doesn't hurt, either.
But maybe what it really takes is a breathtaking moment of individual brilliance from an all-world defensive lineman.
The last time Iowa won a road game against Penn State was the 2009 season. That was a memorable and magical year for many reasons, but one of the biggest was the presence of one Adrian Clayborn on the defensive line. Clayborn took the leap from "very good" to "great" in that season and was an unstoppable terrormonster on multiple occasions. He didn't quite single-handedly destroy Georgia Tech's triple-option attack in the Orange Bowl... but his performance there was still an all-timer. He had plenty of other great moments in '09 as well and one that still sticks out vividly came in that Iowa win over Penn State, when Clayborn blocked a punt, then scooped up the ball and ran it back for a touchdown.
Well, saying that he "blocked a punt" undersells it pretty significantly -- he annihilated the hapless (and woefully undersized) Penn State player who got tasked with blocking him on the play. But the block, the scoop, and the run-back all combine to make one absolutely indelible moment.
Yesterday, Daviyon Nixon got his own signature moment -- he it too came against Penn State, in Happy Valley. Like Clayborn in '09, Nixon's play has ascended to another level this season. He's become Iowa's leader and best player on defense and an absolutely spectacular force on the defensive line week in and week out. He's been one of the most disruptive forces in the Big Ten, a fact which is supported both by his stats (he ranks second in the Big Ten in sacks (4.0) and tackles for loss (8.5)) and by the eye test (just watch him maraud through opposing offensive linemen on his way to the quarterback).
He's had some great moments as a pass rusher this season, but his game-clinching play against Penn State on Saturday showcased the full range of his incredible athleticism and ability. Let's watch it again if you haven't already:
Nixon lines up in his traditional spot at tackle in the interior, but slides toward the edge as Joe Evans (lined up at defensive end) drops into coverage and two defenders (Nick Niemann and Jack Campbell, I think) blitz up the middle. Nixon hangs back rather than joining the rush himself and watches Sean Clifford's eyes. As Clifford goes to loft a short pass to the running back who leaked out of the backfield, Nixon springs into action -- and I do mean springs.
He times his jump perfectly and leaps up and snags Clifford's pass out of the air with what looks like practiced ease. How often do you see a 6'3", 305 lb that can jump like that or has hands like that? Nixon was a basketball player in his younger days and his hoops background definitely shows on that play; he looks like he's going up to snare a rebound out of the air as he goes up to snatch the pass.
As soon as his feet touch the ground, Nixon breaks into a run and he looks smooth doing so (not always the case with linemen sprinting downfield). The only two Penn State players with a technical opportunity to catch him are #79 (the offensive tackle) and Clifford, the quarterback who just got intercepted. #79 has no prayer of catching Nixon in the open field and Clifford, well, he makes a business decision that getting in front of Nixon rampaging down the field is not going to go well for him. Can't blame him for that. That's not entirely fair, though -- he also doesn't really have a great chance to "tackle" Nixon (or even slow him down) because Nixon shows off some more great athletic skill by hitting him with a Euro-step around midfield and cutting in-field to leave Clifford wrong-footed and groping at air. At that point there was nothing between Nixon and the end zone -- and the first touchdown of his Hawkeye career.
Clayborn's big play was probably more important -- Iowa trailed 10-5 before he scored that touchdown. They led 11-10 after his stunning play and never looked back. Would they have scored a go-ahead touchdown without his moment of greatness? Maybe, maybe not. There were over 12 minutes to go in the game and Iowa was set to get the ball back on the punt -- but it's not as if the Iowa offense had been doing great things to that point in the game. Thankfully, Clayborn's return made it academic and provided the jump-start for Iowa to race out to an indelible, unforgettable 9-0 start that season.
By contrast, Iowa already had a 13-point lead over Penn State when Nixon made his own stunning play and scored a touchdown. Penn State was driving -- they were on the Iowa 26-yard line -- but there were just two minutes to go and they still needed to score two touchdowns. That likely would have involved scoring a touchdown, recovering an onside kick, and scoring another touchdown. Certainly not impossible, but also not terribly likely. But Nixon's huge play took that scenario from improbable to fully impossible and iced the win for Iowa in the process.
That said, I think you can also argue that Nixon's play is more impressive than Clayborn's play, great as it was. Clayborn blew up a guy who had absolutely no business blocking him on a punt and had a clear lane to the end zone once he scooped the ball off the ground after blocking it. Nixon had to read the quarterback, time his jump, catch the ball, and even mix in a little trickery on a run-back that was over 70 yards. That's one hell of a football play.
But why choose? They're both great plays -- and they look especially great next to one another.
History does not repeat itself... but it often rhymes. pic.twitter.com/j4IReb9xnS— Go Iowa Awesome (@IowaAwesome) November 22, 2020
GO BIG GUY TOUCHDOWN AWESOME.