IOWA CITY – This game felt a lot like Michigan in 2016. The lights, insane atmosphere inside Kinnick, a top-five opponent, and a stifling Hawkeye defense causing problems left and right.
Then, suddenly, it felt more like Michigan State and the 2015 Big Ten Championship Game. In that game, it was L.J. Scott who broke Hawkeye hearts. Last night, it was Juwan Johnson.
Johnson’s four-yard touchdown reception as time expired gave the Nittany Lions a 21-19 win over the Hawkeyes Saturday night. The madhouse that was Kinnick Stadium suddenly felt somber and empty.
“You go right down to the wire, two teams slugging it out,” said Iowa Head Coach Kirk Ferentz after the game. “Nobody left anything out there. I think everybody was totally spent.”
The play capped off a classic Big Ten football game that will without a doubt be shown on Big Ten Classic for years and years to come. Penn State managed to do what three top-five teams before them had failed to do: beat the Hawkeyes under the Kinnick lights.
It wasn’t easy for the Nittany Lions. Credit Josey Jewell and the Iowa defense.
The “bend don’t break” philosophy when facing a prolific offense has never been executed more proficiently. The Hawkeye defense allowed 219 yards of offense in the first half, but surrendered a mere three points.
Heisman candidate Saquon Barkley was held to just 63 rushing yards and 47 receiving yards in the first half. For Barkley, that’s a horrendous day at the office.
Nate Stanley and the offense had no such luck getting moving either. In the first half, the offense managed just 54 yards of total offense. Even more surprising, just six of those were rush yards credited to Stanley. Penn State had Akrum Wadley on lock.
The offense also allowed a safety on an ill-advised pitch to Wadley in the Iowa end zone. Penn State led 5-0, and the Hawkeyes had yet to run a play past the 50-yard line.
The defense helped them out again.
Sam Brincks forced a quarterback hurry from Trace McSorely with just over one minute remaining in the half. Jewell picked the pass off at the Iowa 46 and returned it all the way to the Penn State 21-yard line.
On the next play, Stanley found Nick Easley for a touchdown. In the blink of an eye, the Hawkeyes led 7-5 at halftime.
Iowa’s offense managed just three first downs, accumulated only 54 yards of offense, and ran just one play in Penn State territory in the first half.
That’s how well the defense played.
There was still whole half to play, and Heisman-caliber running backs can only be held in check for so long.
Saquon Barkley, and dare I say, Akrum Wadley, proved that to everyone watching.
Barkley finally managed to really break out in the second half. Even when bottled up, it seemed the powerful runner would find ways to shed tackles and pick up handfuls of yards.
Barkley finished with a career-high 211 rushing yards and added 94 receiving yards. Including his kick return yards, Barkley set a new Penn State record with 358 all-purpose yards.
“He’s a powerful runner, you saw it today,” Jewell said. “He can move lateral or he can run right over you or jump over you.”
“He’s a Heisman candidate for a reason,” Brincks said.
Again, despite the huge numbers, the Hawkeyes kept Barkley out of the end zone for most of the game. Barkley managed to run for an eight-yard touchdown, his only score of the game, with 10:42 left in the third quarter to put the Nittany Lions up 15-7.
The touchdown drive was set up by a Wadley fumble at the Penn State 36 after a well-executed sequence from the Hawkeyes. Wadley’s career began with ball security issues, and a fumble in the game ended a huge scoring chance for the Hawkeyes.
But, like he always seems to do, Wadley managed to put the team on his back down the stretch.
Midway through the fourth quarter, Wadley caught a dump pass from Stanley and zig-zagged his way down the field for a 70-yard touchdown reception. After the failed two-point conversion, the Hawkeyes trailed 15-13.
On the ensuing Penn State drive, Barkley and McSorely marched down to the Iowa 13 before the defense held strong yet again. Anthony Nelson blocked a short field goal to keep hopes alive for the Hawkeyes with 2:42 left to play.
Noah Fant drew a pass interference call and Stanley completed two passes to quickly get the Hawkeyes to the Penn State 35.
Then it was Wadley again. He ran left through a huge hole and caught the sideline before racing into the end zone for a 35-yard touchdown run, giving the Hawkeyes a 19-15 lead with just under two minutes to play.
Jubilation was filling Kinnick Stadium. Fans were losing their voices and slamming their hands into the barriers, dying to rush the field and celebrate another upset.
McSorely had other plans.
The Penn State quarterback led an excellent drive. He converted a crucial fourth down near midfield and completed seven of his 11 passes on the final possession. With four seconds left, he found himself facing make-or-break fourth-and-goal.
Calmly, McSorely fired a strike just over the outstretched hands of Amani Hooker to Johnson for the game-winning touchdown. Penn State 21, Iowa 19.
Jubilation turned to devastation in a mere four seconds.
After sending the Hawkeyes off to a standing ovation, many fans stayed standing for another 10 or more minutes. Moving would mean they accepted the defeat that just didn’t seem real yet.
Another classic under the Kinnick lights came right down to the wire, but the Hawkeyes were just a play short of walking away with yet another top-five upset.
“Both teams competed as hard as you possibly can,” Ferentz said. “Both teams executed really well down the stretch.”
With sorrowful voices, many Hawkeye players were reluctant to dive too deep into the details of the game, and understandably so. A handful of guys seemed to be fighting backs tears after the emotional letdown.
“Obviously we lost, so no one’s happy about that,” Hooker said after his first career start. “We know we played hard, we gave it our all, they just came up big on the last play.”
In traditional Iowa fashion, the Hawkeyes proved that they can compete with the best of the best. If they play that way for their next eight games, they could work their way to a rematch with the Nittany Lions in the Big Ten Championship Game.
That’s still a ways away though. Right now, the Hawkeyes are ready to grow and prepare for week five.
“The season’s not over,” Jewell said. “You can’t let this game ruin the rest of them, you have to have this game help the rest of them.”
The Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1) play at Michigan State (2-1, 0-0) next Saturday at 3:00pm.