#3 Iowa 23, #4 Penn State 20: A Game To Remember

By RossWB on October 10, 2021 at 1:05 am
© Bryon Houlgrave/The Register / USA TODAY NETWORK

So if you drew up a plan for Iowa to win that game and beat #4 Penn State... that's what you would have drawn up, right? Stiff defense, a big victory in the turnover margin, superb special teams, and just enough offense...? That was probably the blueprint for Iowa's win today and they followed that plan to a T for the most part. The defense was great (especially in the second half), the special teams created field position wins and (and made a handful of clutch field goals), there were turnovers aplenty (4 interceptions and a +3 turnover margin overall), and the offense got one big play when it badly needed it... Iowa got all of that today, plus one more thing: a very timely injury to Penn State QB Sean Clifford. 

Penn State led 17-3 and had out-gained Iowa's offense by about 150 yards in the second quarter when Clifford exited the game after sustaining a hard hit from Jack Campbell. Iowa outscored Penn State 20-3 and outgained them by about 150 yards over the remaining 2.5 quarters. Suffice to say, Clifford's departure proved to be a huge pivot point in the game. Would Iowa's defense have been able to make some adjustments to slow down Clifford and Penn State's offense? Maybe. Maybe not. 

Clifford's numbers overall were somewhat pedestrian -- but 15/25, 146 yards, 0 TD, 2 INT through the air, plus 36 yards rushing on three carries -- but those stats belie his full impact on the game. With him in the game, Penn State's offense had five drives; three ended in points (two touchdowns and a field goal) and two ended in interceptions. Clifford's mixture of accurate short passes and contain-breaking runs kept Iowa's defense on its heels frequently in the first quarter and a half. He was definitely the straw that stirred the drink for Penn State's offense. 

The flip side to Clifford's effectiveness on offense is that he had a pretty staggering usage rate. By my count he ran or threw the ball on 29 of 34 plays when he was in the game; having the ball in your hands that much also means taking a lot of hits. That will certainly take its toll against a defense that hits as hard as Iowa's defense. I think it's terrible that he got injured and I hope any injuries he sustained aren't serious and he's able to resume his season soon; to avoid additional injuries this season, though, Penn State is going to need to find other players on offense to step up and lighten Clifford's load, especially in the run game. Clifford ended up leading Penn State in rushing in this game (3 carries, 36 yards) despite only playing 1.5 quarters; Keyvone Lee, Noah Cain, and Ta'Quan Robinson combined for just 72 yards on 28 carries in the game. 

With Clifford out of the game, Iowa's defense was able to assert control. After scoring on three of their first five possessions, Penn State scored just once (a field goal) on their remaining nine drives of the game. They had just 95 yards in the second half and averaged 2.6 yards per play. Replacing Clifford with Robinson made Penn State's offense much more one dimensional and Iowa's defense feasted as a result, smothering the run and eventually blitzing the hell out of Robinson once Penn State was forced into obvious passing downs.

Jack Campbell, whose crushing hit on Clifford had a massive impact on the game as a whole, led Iowa with nine tackles, seven solo. Iowa had just one official sack (from Deontae Craig), but they did record seven QB hurries in the game, led by two apiece from Dane Belton and Seth Benson. With Iowa's front four often unable to generate enough pressure, Phil Parker dialed up more blitzes (often from Belton or Benson), which proved effective -- they forced several bad passes or hurried throws. And, of course, Iowa also added to their staggering turnover count for the season by adding not one, not two, not three, but four interceptions in the game (bringing their total to 16 for the season), with one apiece from Jestin Jacobs, Jack Koerner, Riley Moss, and Matt Hankins. Hankins also had one of the biggest plays of the game with a tackle on fourth down late in the fourth quarter when Penn State was trying to drive for a tying or game-winning score. He had some very big-time plays today -- just as he did in Iowa's other win over an (at the time) Top 10-ranked opponent, Iowa State. Big Game Matt made his presence felt. 

Iowa's defense only forced one turnover in the second half (a late Matt Hankins interception that effectively clinched the victory), but their ability to smother Penn State and force punts after just a handful of plays contributed to Iowa winning the field position battle. Three of Iowa's five scoring drives in this game started in Penn State territory, including their two biggest of the game. Down 20-13 in the fourth quarter, Tory Taylor pinned Penn State on their own 1-yard line. Iowa's defense stonewalled Penn State and three plays later they punted. Jordan Stout, their excellent specialist, managed a very good kick despite being pinned deep in his own end zone -- but even a very good kick gave Iowa field position at midfield. A 42-yard catch-and-run by Keagan Johnson got Iowa down to the Penn State 8-yard line and while the drive stalled out badly from there (Iowa ended up losing 10 yards over the next three plays), they were still close enough to convert another field goal and cut their deficit to 20-16. 

On the ensuing drive, Penn State started at their own 25-yard line after a touchback on the kickoff... and promptly went backward 19 yards, courtesy of a pair of false starts and a chop block penalty on third down. Iowa could have declined the chop block penalty and forced Penn State to punt, but Ferentz gambled that forcing Penn State further back would reap dividends in field position. He was right -- two plays later Stout uncorked his worst punt of the game, one traveling just 38 yards and fair caught by Charlie Jones at the Penn State 44-yard line. 

Gifted with their second-best starting field position of the night and blessed with a rare non-blitz by the Penn State defense, the Iowa offense wasted no time in taking advantage. Brian Ferentz dialed up his best play call of the night, a play-action deep ball and Spencer Petras connected with a wide open Nico Ragaini, who sprinted the rest of the way to the corner end zone. 


Iowa's defense slowly, methodically, painstakingly squeezing the life out of Penn State drive after drive and pushing them further back on several possessions was critical to Iowa's ultimate victory. Along with that, though, Iowa needed some stellar special teams work to ensure they continued winning the field position battle and, friends, did they ever get that. 

Tory Taylor ended the game with nine punts for 398 yards, an average of 44.2 yards per kick, with a long of 53 yards. More importantly, six of those nine kicks were downed inside the 20 (!); five were inside the 10 (!!) and three were inside the 3-yard line (!!!). There was some masterful punting on display in this game and it was absolutely necessary. 

Iowa's offense ended up out-gaining Penn State's on the day, but this was far from a standout day for that unit. Spencer Petras finished 17/31 for 195 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT, though his numbers in the final three quarters (16/25 for 181 yards, 2 TD) were considerably better than his numbers in the first quarter (1/9 for 14 yards and an interception). He took a pounding from Penn State's defense (3 sacks, 6 QB hurries), but mostly avoided bad decisions or poor throws (except for his interception in the first quarter, when he tried to squeeze a pass into a very tiny window).

Tyler Goodson finished with 79 yards rushing on 26 carries (plus 16 yards receiving on a pair of receptions), but his rushing production felt extremely boom-or-bust; for every good run that went for 7+ yards it seemed like Goodson had at least three carries that went for no gain or negative yards. There simply wasn't much running room for Goodson for much of this game; there's not much you can do when a defender is in the backfield or at the line of scrimmage as soon as you get the ball. To that end, this was also not a banner day for Iowa's offensive line. They made strides forward against Maryland last week, but they definitely struggled on several plays and drives against Penn State. The Nittany Lions do have the best defense Iowa has seen so far this season (and maybe the best they'll see all season), but Iowa's offensive line still got overwhelmed on multiple occasions in this game, especially by Penn State's blitzes. 

The pass-catching stars were likely not who you would have expected before the game. Tyrone Tracy had just one catch for four yards and Sam LaPorta had just one catch for eight yards. But with LaPorta being smothered, Luke Lachey was able to snare two receptions for 25 yards, both for first downs. 44 of Nico Ragaini's team-high 73 receiving yards came on that aforementioned touchdown grab, but he also had three receptions for 29 yards prior to that play. Charlie Jones had three receptions for 13 yards, including Iowa's other touchdown, a 9-yard catch-and-run in the second quarter. Keagan Johnson finished with two catches for 45 yards, while fellow frosh Arland Bruce also had two catches (for 11 yards). 

The biggest disappointment on Iowa's offense was in the play calling, though. A week after calling his best game of the year against Maryland, Brian Ferentz struggled to find a productive rhythm against Penn State. Those struggles were especially apparent in the red zone, where Iowa was flat-out bad. Iowa scored 13 points on three red zone trips, but the nine plays they ran inside Penn State's 20-yard line racked up a grand total of... -2 yards. So many of the calls seemed to have little hope of success, either. It was also frustrating that Iowa's offense couldn't better capitalize at the end of the first half when Penn State was reeling after Clifford's injury and seemed vulnerable; Iowa got the ball on their own 36-yard line and their own 45-yard line and was unable to even get within field goal range on either drive. Just an absolute mess. The shot to Ragaini was a great call at the perfect moment, so kudos to Brian Ferentz for that, but there was a lot of grim viewing for the Iowa offense in the rest of this game. 

The struggles by the offense absolutely contributed to what happened at the end of the game -- which was one of the strangest, most improbable things we've ever seen from a team trying to run out the clock and secure a victory. Upon taking possession at the Penn State 40 with 2:13 to play after Hankins' interception, Iowa proceeded to run Goodson for a one-yard loss on first down, after which Penn State used their final timeout with 1:28 remaining. Iowa promptly took a knee on second down... and again on third down. Except after all that there was still 0:39 left on the clock... and Iowa had to punt the ball back to Penn State.

Kirk Ferentz was more comfortable putting the ball in the hands (er, foot) of Tory Taylor and the Iowa defense, trusting Taylor to pin Penn State deep (he did, to the PSU 8) and the defense to stop them from there (they did, forcing a four-and-out). Iowa's defense and special teams (especially punting) are their strongest units... but that was still a ballsy move. You rarely see teams voluntarily give the ball back to an opponent with just a 3-point lead, but that's effectively what Iowa did here. Of course, there's also some precedent for that with Ferentz and Iowa-Penn State games. In 2004 we had the FU safety game. In 2021, we got the FU QB kneel game. Incredible.

And last -- but certainly not least -- we'd be remiss if we didn't single out the incredible atmosphere that this game had from pretty much start to finish, thanks to one of the loudest and most electric crowds at Kinnick Stadium in years, if not ever. This was Iowa's first sellout of the season and y'all brought an absolutely deafening amount of noise to the proceedings. This was never more evident than in the eight false start penalties that Penn State suffered in the game. Those calls had everything to do with the wall of noise that Iowa fans were able to produce. I mean, look at how loud things got: 

That is absolutely bonkers. Kinnick basically hit almost jet engine decibels of sound on multiple occasions in this game. That was extremely impressive. Defense, special teams, a pinch of offense, a key injury... and a raucous crowd that brought the thunder for over three hours -- those were all the factors that led to Iowa winning this game tonight. 

What a game. What a win. It still feels a little surreal to contemplate. The most hyped Iowa game in decades, a showdown between the #3 and #4 teams in the country, an absolute fist fight between two of the top defenses in the country... and at the end of the day, Iowa won. 6-0, baby. Enjoy this one, folks. Games like this come along only rarely and if you're fortunate enough to win them -- and Iowa was today -- they're very much something to cherish. 


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