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Overtime: A Look Back at the Iowa Hawkeyes 21-19 Loss to Penn State

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By Jack Brandsgard (   09/25/17

Football is a game of inches, and that was on display Saturday night. The contest had all the makings of a classic Iowa Hawkeye upset: an ugly game under the Kinnick lights against a highly touted opponent before a rowdy, striped crowd.

Iowa’s defense made it obvious from the beginning that they were willing to live with Penn State dinking and dunking their way down the field. The Hawkeyes played soft coverage against the Nittany Lions, allowing anything underneath to be caught. Iowa’s plan seemed to be to keep yielding three or four yard plays until Penn State messed up and found themselves in third-and-long.

The “bend, don’t break” strategy was effective. Iowa became just the sixth team since 2000 to allow at least 575 yards while surrendering 21 or fewer points. The plan was enough to put Iowa in a position to capitalize on any Penn State miscue, which came to fruition late in the first half.

Sam Brincks, who was great in Iowa’s defensive line platoon, eased past Penn State’s right tackle and blindsided quarterback Trace McSorley, stunting McSorley’s arm motion and forcing a flailing duck that landed in Josey Jewell’s lap. The very next play, Nate Stanley connected with Nick Easley on a 21-yard touchdown to give Iowa a 7-5 lead going into the locker room.

Despite one of the worst offensive halves in recent memory, Iowa somehow had the lead. The Hawkeyes had seven drives in the first thirty minutes; five ended in a punt, one ended in a safety after Brian Ferentz called a pitch play on his own goal line (his first call that I’ve truly disagreed with), and the last drive culminated with Stanley finding Easley following the Jewell pick. Iowa’s offense mustered just 54 total yards and focal point Akrum Wadley had 10 carries for 0 yards, but the defense willed the team into a halftime lead.

The beginning of the second half wasn’t any better for Iowa’s O. Penn State had regained the lead after a field goal that made the score 8-7. After a promising ensuing drive by Iowa, PSU safety Marcus Allen put his helmet directly on the football as Wadley fought for extra yards, jarring it loose before Penn State recovered on their own 25. The Nittany Lions seized the opportunity, driving 75 yards on eight plays for a touchdown. Following another Iowa punt, momentum was squarely on Penn State’s side and there was a tangible hush throughout Kinnick Stadium.

Then AJ Epenesa ripped past his blocker and forced a Trace McSorley fumble, which Josey Jewell pounced on. The play swung momentum back in Iowa’s favor and displayed Epenesa’s immense talent (it’s clear that he has outgrown his role as a third-down pass rush specialist). The freshman nearly de-cleated Saquon Barkley and forced three quarterback hurries in addition to his strip-sack despite primarily not playing on downs one and two.

Epenesa’s forced fumble put Iowa in business near midfield, but the wind was again taken out of Iowa’s sails as a Penn State player leaped the line of scrimmage from a stationary position, a key distinction as it’s only illegal to hurdle after getting a running start, and blocked Miguel Recinos’ 36-yard field goal attempt.

With the score 15-7 Penn State and the fourth quarter underway, the pressure was on Iowa’s defense to hold serve. Three plays and six yards later, the job was done.

10:02 showed on the clock as Nate Stanley lobbed a pass over the Penn State linebacker responsible for covering Akrum Wadley, and the running back took it from there. His patented jump cut freed Wadley from a Penn State tackler, and the defender took out his own man in his effort, springing the ever-elusive Hawkeye into open space for what felt like the first time all night. 70-winding-and-weaving yards later, Wadley dove into the endzone, cutting Penn State’s lead to 15-13 and prompting a stern “Quiet please!” to echo over the loudspeaker in the press box.

The play was sensational, but Iowa still trailed as the defense again took the field needing a stop. In ultimate “bend, don’t break” fashion, the Hawkeyes conceded a 16-play, 75-yard drive before finally holding at their own 13. Anthony Nelson, who was spectacular with 2.5 sacks and multiple batted balls, used his 6’7 frame to send Penn State’s 31-yard field goal attempt helicoptering awry and Kinnick into a frenzy.

The defense had done it again. Iowa still faced a steep mountain ahead, however, as their sophomore quarterback took the field trailing 15-13 with 2:28 remaining against the number four team in the nation.

Nate Stanley was game, completing an eight-yarder to Ihmir Smith-Marsette and a 22-yard chunk play to Matt VandeBerg, putting Iowa in positive territory and causing the crowd to simmer.

Wadley then struck again with a 35-yard dash that blew the lid off Kinnick. Against all odds, Iowa led Penn State 19-15.

Just one more stop and the upset was complete. Penn State needed a touchdown and had just 1:30 to do it, starting from their own 20. For the first time, Iowa was the favorite. Eleven plays and one fourth-down conversion later, the Nittany Lions found themselves on the doorstep with just four ticks remaining. Fourth and goal for the game.

Iowa man-aligned with a hat on a hat. Penn State needed just one receiver to win his individual battle. They found their man in Juwan Johnson, who faked toward the corner before slicing back inside against Miles Taylor, who was fooled on the play. McSorley delivered the perfect ball, just over the outstretched hands of safety Amani Hooker.

Touchdown. 21-19 Penn State. Game over.

Game of inches.

It’s heartbreaking for Iowa players and fans alike to come so close to replicating last year’s Michigan upset. The tantalization of going down to the last play only to come up just short. But there’s not much blame to go around. Penn State is just a really good football team that made plays when they needed to.

I could write forever about the play of Saquon Barkley, but suffice it to say that he made the defining play of the game. Facing a third-and-six during the fourth quarter, Barkley caught a check-down in the backfield from McSorley. Josh Jackson closed quickly on Barkley, who hurdled over the 6’1 Jackson before being walloped midair by 210-pound Amani Hooker. Amazingly, Barkley absorbed the blow, kept his balance, and gained five more yards for the first down. It was jaw-dropping and served as a microcosm for the game: Iowa did everything right, but Penn State was just better.

Sometimes it sucks, but as Kirk Ferentz always says, that’s football.

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