There was a good article in The Athletic this week by Scott Dochterman describing Iowa-Penn State as the best non-rivalry rivalry in the Big Ten, based largely on the quality (and intensity) of the games. And he's probably right about that, especially from an Iowa standpoint. The quality of the games between Iowa and Penn State over the past 20 years has often been outstanding -- thrilling, memorable, back-and-forth affairs full of drama and intrigue -- even if there isn't any sort of official rivalry between Iowa and Penn State.
So let's rank all 17 Iowa-Penn State games of the KF era, which stretches back to 1999. Why not include the other Iowa-Penn State games from the '90s after the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten? Not gonna lie: I just don't remember those games very well at all. The pick of the litter (sorry not sorry) from those games is obviously the 1996 game, which featured Iowa upsetting #10 Penn State in Happy Valley thanks to Tim Dwight doing Tim Dwight things.
On with the rankings...
17) 2012: Penn State 38, Iowa 14
What a nightmare. There have been a handful of Iowa-Penn State games in the KF era that have featured Iowa getting the brakes beaten off them by the Nittany Lions, so what makes 2012 the worst? A few things: for one, getting dissected at home, at night, makes for an especially demoralizing affair. As usual, Kinnick was hyped and ready at the start of this primetime kickoff; it didn't take long for that energy to evaporate and you were left with three hours of the home team getting its face rubbed in the dirt. The other factor that made this game so terrible? Two of Iowa's best players, Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal, suffered season-ending injuries in the game, which helped put Iowa in a tailspin for the rest of the season. The 2012 Iowa team didn't have a particularly high ceiling -- they were probably headed for a 6-6 or 7-5 season at best -- but even those modest heights were beyond their reach after the cumulative damage of this beatdown.
16) 2016: #12 Penn State 41, Iowa 14
And this was one of the other Iowa-Penn State game during the KF era in which Iowa got absolutely throttled for three hours. Iowa losing like that has (thankfully) been a rare sight during the KF era, but it didn't make this loss sting much less. Iowa had no answers for Penn State on offense, defense, or special teams in this game. Just a total systems failure. The only silver lining is that getting absolutely torched by PSU in this game seemed to light a fire under Iowa and they played an unbelievable game and upset #2 Michigan the very next week. Football!
15) 2007: Penn State 27, Iowa 7
Another turd of a game. A pretty bad Iowa team got worked like a speedbag by a Penn State team led by (checks notes) Anthony Morelli? Look, folks, this was not a glorious time for either Iowa football or this particularly non-rivalry rivalry. Here's what you need to know about this game: despite a +3 turnover advantage, Iowa trailed 20-0 until the fourth quarter and they got out-gained by almost 300 yards. 2007 Iowa football was not good.
14) 2011: Penn State 13, Iowa 3
I can't remember too much about this game beyond the fact that it was dreadfully boring, as the final score suggests. It was a close game on the scoreboard -- Iowa trailed just 6-3 at halftime and, in fact, that was the score until midway through the fourth quarter when Penn State pushed the lead to two scores with a Matt McGloin (remember him?) touchdown pass. Three turnovers ultimately sealed their fate, but Iowa's offense couldn't get anything going -- they never got closer than the Penn State 41-yard line in the second half. (They also punted from the Penn State 41-yard line, because Iowa.)
13) 1999: Penn State 31, Iowa 7
Of all the lopsided Iowa-Penn State losses during this time period, this one stings the least because there were just no expectations for Iowa at the time. There were (deservedly) free passes aplenty in Year One of the Ferentz era. And, frankly, Iowa certainly suffered worse thrashing than this that year. This was just a bad team losing to a good team -- no more, no less.
12) 2018: #17 Penn State 30, #18 Iowa 24
And now we've entered the portion of this list consisting of bitterly disappointing Penn State losses that still make me wince to this day! If you're trying to distinguish this one from the next two games on the list, this is the one where Nate Stanley threw an interception on first-and-goal from the Penn State 3-yard line with just over two minutes to go. (Pain!) Or the one where Nate Stanley overthrew TJ Hockenson on what would have been a wide-open touchdown pass early in the game. (More pain!) (This is not meant to single out Stanley for blame, but those were two absolutely brutal plays in this game.) Iowa had a 12-0 lead in this game barely 10 minutes into the first quarter (that could have been more lopsided; they settled for a field goal from the Penn State 4-yard line on an early drive), but Penn State did not go quietly. This was a strange, sloppy game (there were four combined turnovers in the game, which doesn't even include the two safeties that Penn State took as well), but mostly it's a game that just stings from an Iowa perspective.
11) 2019: #10 Penn State 17, #12 Iowa 12
This was the rematch to that game and it was, as has so often been the case over the last decade in this series (especially among the games played at Kinnick Stadium), a night game. Iowa rocked a never-before-seen set of gold jerseys and pants inspired by some (in)famous '90s looks for this game, but the new threads failed to light a sufficient spark under the Iowa offense. The Hawkeyes could only muster a pair of field goals until a late (spectacular) Brandon Smith touchdown catch. Unfortunately, that late score only cut the lead from 17-6 to 17-12. Iowa kicked the ball away on the ensuing kickoff -- and never got the ball back again. The defense kept Iowa in this game (as has so often been the case), but the offense was unable to hold up its end of the bargain (as has so often been the case).
10) 2017: #4 Penn State 21, Iowa 19
Despite the fact that this game ended in a gut-wrenching defeat, I still rank this among the best Iowa games I've ever attended in-person. I can't in good conscience put it any higher on this list because it was still a game that Iowa lost, but it was an absolutely incredible game. Unbelievably electric atmosphere? Check. This was the first Iowa night game after the stunning upset win over #2 Michigan the previous season and there was a lot of buzz about the potential for history to repeat itself. (Iowa did engineer a huge home upset over a Top 5 opponent in 2017 -- it just happened a few months later.) Spectacular performances? Check. There's reason this is also known as "The Saquon Barkley Game" -- it's the one where had 305 yards of offense and a host of highlight-reel plays (the hurdle is probably still seared into your brain). Big plays? Check. Iowa's three touchdowns in this game were an unreal 21-yard pass from Nate Stanley to Nick Easley, a 70-yard catch-and-run by Akrum Wadley, and a 35-yard run from Wadley. This game was basically sixty minutes of Iowa just absorbing blow after blow from Penn State and then connecting with a few massive haymakers to stun them. Drama? This game had it in spades, especially at the end of the game. Any game that ends on a walk-off fourth down touchdown pass is certainly not lacking in the drama department. Again, I hate that Iowa lost this game... but it was an unreal game.
9) 2001: Iowa 24, Penn State 18
A comfortably boring win for an Iowa team that was shaking off the doldrums of 98-99-00 and figuring out how to be a good team. There was another comfortably boring win for Iowa over Penn State two years later (it's the next game on this list, in fact), but it at least it had some big play excitement. Iowa built up a 21-5 lead at halftime and then... well, they technically played the second half but they didn't really do anything in the second half. So. As Adam pointed out at the old site, this game was probably most notable for being the first Iowa football game played after 9/11 and how profoundly everything felt back then.
8) 2003: #15 Iowa 26, Penn State 14
Another comfortably boring win in this series for a good-not-great Iowa team over a not-good Penn State squad. Penn State struck first with an 82-yard pick-six, but Iowa scored the next 26 points in the game and that was that. Iowa used a pretty familiar formula to get this win: rugged run game (Fred Russell had 148 yards on the ground), stingy defense (Iowa held Penn State under 170 yards of offense), turnovers (a 47-yard fumble return set up Iowa's first touchdown), and special teams (a blocked punt was returned 32 yards for Iowa's final touchdown).
7) 2010: #17 Iowa 24, #22 Penn State 3
As noted earlier in these rankings, night games have become a regular feature in this series, especially at Kinnick; this was the first official primetime kickoff for Iowa and Penn State at legendary (historic) Kinnick Stadium. (The 2008 game famously ended under the lights, but it kicked off in daylight at 2:30 PM local time.) This was also the first black-and-gold striping game, a gimmick that's become an annual tradition for Iowa (in fact, this year's black-and-gold game is Saturday's game against Penn State). The atmosphere was great, the striping looked great, the Iowa defense was great, the Iowa offense did just enough and that was pretty much that for this game.
6) 2020: Iowa 41, Penn State 21
Should this game be higher? Maybe. It was definitely a cathartic breakthrough after six straight defeats to Penn State (the series that was all Iowa in the '00s was all Penn State in the '10s) and Iowa played one of its most complete games of the season, excelling on offense and defense (for the most part) in toppling the Nittany Lions. It also featured one of the signature moments of the season, Daviyon Nixon's Euro-stepping pick-six. All of that? Great. But you tell me which of the games ahead of it should actually be behind it.
5) 2000: Iowa 26, Penn State 23 (2OT)
2020 was a breakthrough win for Iowa in this series; 2000 was a breakthrough win for Iowa as a program. While Penn State wasn't very good in 2000 (this loss dropped them to 4-6 on the year), Iowa wasn't any better (they ascended to the lofty heights of 2-8 with this win). But this game was Iowa's first road win of the Ferentz era (a big deal) and they rode the good vibes from this win to an even-better upset win over #12 Northwestern the following week. Iowa suffered a narrow loss to Minnesota to end the 2000 season, but they were finally showing flashes of real competence and possibility. Those flashes turned into a first winning season in 2001 and then, eventually, into a season for the ages in 2002. This game also featured early career heroics from some all-time great Hawkeyes like Bob Sanders (promoted to starter and treating every play like a demolition derby) and Nate Kaeding (who made four field goals on the day, the closest of which was 43 yards out). And it was Iowa's first-ever overtime game! What a day.
4) 2004: #25 Iowa 6, Penn State 4
If you like things such as "points," "first downs," or "the general concept of offensive competence," this is very much not the game for you. All of those things were very much in short supply in this infamous game. If, on the other hand, your tastes run towards "smothering defense," "hilaribad turnovers," "punting," and "FU safeties," then this is very much the game for you, friend. And if you like seeing raw, unfiltered emotion, this game is nigh-impossible to beat. Kirk Ferentz has cried after many an Iowa win over his 22+ years in charge, but the tears have never been rawer and more meaningful than they were after this game, played hours from where Ferentz grew up and just days after his father passed away. 6-4 is a meme, sure, but it's also unforgettable.
3) 2002: Iowa 42, #12 Penn State 35 (OT)
This game was shaping up to be a particularly nasty bit of deja vu for Iowa fans -- right up until it wasn't. See, Iowa fans had seen this script play out before -- recently, and to disastrous effect. Two weeks prior Iowa had jumped out to a big halftime lead over Iowa State, then watched Iowa State score 29 unanswered points in the second half to come back and take the victory. It remains a scarring loss to anyone who was in Kinnick Stadium that night. So when Iowa fans watched the Hawkeyes jump out to a big lead against Penn State here and then give up 22 unanswered points in the second half to ultimately tie the game and send it to overtime, well, you can see why they might have been pulling their hair out. Except this game didn't have the same ending -- Iowa reset themselves in overtime, Brad Banks found CJ Jones for a touchdown on Iowa's first offensive possession in OT, and the Iowa defense got a fourth down stop to win the game on Penn State's first offensive possession in OT. So, yeah, Iowa absolutely positively should have won this game by a lot and the game never should have been close, let alone went to OT (as Adam documented years ago). But all's well that ends well and this game ended very well -- and kicked off an incredible Big Ten season for Iowa in 2002.
2) 2009: Iowa 21, #5 Penn State 10
Aside from a certain field goal, I think this game has the most indelible play of the Iowa-Penn State series during the Ferentz era. And you know exactly what play I'm talking about:
"BLOCKED! SCOOPED UP! THIS IS GONNA BE A HAWKEYE TOUCHDOWN!"
Ruining Penn State's perfect season in Iowa City in 2008 was amazing and a Top-5 game in the Ferentz era, period. But going into Happy Valley a year later and upsetting another Top 5-ranked Penn State team in front of 100,000 Penn State fans clamoring for revenge? That was also intensely satisfying.
1) 2008: Iowa 24, #3 Penn State 23
What else could it be? This is at least a Top-5 game of the Ferentz era, if not one of the two or three best of the last 22+ years. This was a bit like the 2017 game in terms of having everything -- back-and-forth action, big plays, drama -- except Iowa actually won this game. This was the game that firmly re-established Iowa football as a force after a few years in the wilderness and set the stage for the fairly magical 2009 season. It was a coming out party for some of Iowa's most memorable defenders of that era -- Adrian Clayborn, Christian Ballard, Mitch King, Pat Angerer, Tyler MF'ing Sash -- and a standout game for Shonn Greene, an offensive supernova in the Ferentz era. Ricky Stanzi directed one of the most clutch Iowa drives of the last 20 years and Daniel Murray became the mayor of Iowa City and the latest in a long line of folk hero Iowa kickers. We've written about this game countless times over the last 13 years and we'll probably write about it for as long as we keep blogging. Games like this are why we blog and why we cheer.