Roaring back from a two-touchdown deficit in the first half, No. 3 Iowa used a stellar defensive effort with some key breakaway plays on offense to pick up a 23-20 win over No. 4 Penn State, keeping its perfect record and College Football Playoff hopes intact. The Hawkeyes followed the same script they’ve used for years to find success, relying on defense and special teams to put their offense in position to strike.
Iowa forced four Penn State turnovers, all interceptions, and used punter Tory Taylor to pin the Penn State offense in terrible field positions all day long. Five of Taylor’s punts were placed inside the Penn State 20-yard line and three stopped inside the Penn State 5-yard line.
The Hawkeyes took a 3-0 lead early after one of those punts gave the Nittany Lions the ball at their 1-yard line. Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford was intercepted, giving Iowa great field position for a quick score. The offense stalled afterward, allowing the PSU to take control of the game, but things changed when Clifford left late in the first half with what appeared to be an upper-body injury. Ta’Quan Roberson replaced Clifford but couldn’t move the Penn State offense in the second half, putting together only a field goal drive.
Iowa didn’t retake the lead until QB Spencer Petras (17-of-31, 195 yards, two touchdowns) rolled out to his right, stopped and threw back across the field to a wide-open Nico Ragaini, who then raced for the end zone to score the go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter.
Iowa improves to 6-0 with its sixth straight over a ranked opponent. That ties the longest streak in program history dating back to 1960. It was also the Hawkeyes’ 12th straight win, a feat accomplished for the first time since 2015, and their first win over a top-five opponent since beating Ohio State in 2017.
1. Call it luck if you want; Iowa doesn’t care
Since the start of the 2017 season, the national interception rate of passes at the FBS level has been 2.7%. In that time, Iowa has intercepted 4.4% of the passes thrown against it. Only one other team in the country — Appalachian State — has managed to intercept 4% of passes in that time.
Iowa isn’t there due to a couple of outlier seasons, either. Every single year the Hawkeyes are among the highest defenses in the country in interception rate. It’s how they play. It’s a deliberate scheme meant to confuse quarterbacks and force them into mistakes. It sometimes backfires against elite quarterbacks, but there aren’t many of those around the country. There certainly aren’t any in the Big Ten West.
On Saturday, Iowa’s defense posted an interception rate of 8.9% on 45 attempts … which means its numbers are going up.
It also means the number in the win column is going up. So, go ahead and call it luck if you want to. Iowa will happily continue to be as “lucky” as it wants to be.
2. Home-field advantage still matters
While we’ve all readjusted to having fans back in stadiums, there are still moments when you forget how impactful a full house can be. Kinnick Stadium served us some reminders on Saturday. Actually, it gave us eight reminders.
Penn State finished the day with 10 penalties for 61 yards with eight false starts. At one point, the Nittany Lions had three straight false starts on the same down. Part of the problem included communication issues with an inexperienced backup QB. But loud fans played a role, too, and they made life extremely difficult on the Penn State offensive unit. Yelling, hand gestures and general confusion were themes for the NIttany Lions all day.
Imagine how loud it has to be to make that happen. No wonder fans stormed the field afterward. They helped earn this win too.
3. QB Spencer Petras is still the question mark
Iowa’s chances of winning the Big Ten West are strong, as the only other teams in the division without two losses are Minnesota and Purdue, and it’s hard to imagine them winning out.
Still, if Iowa is going to win the Big Ten and get to the College Football Playoff, it will need Petras to help it win a game or two. Petras wasn’t great today, but he did make a key play or two when his team needed one. Of course, he also turned the ball over in the first half and missed a lot of throws he should’ve made. If Petras improves and becomes more comfortable and reliable as a passer in this offense, Iowa goes from an underdog to a real threat nationally.
4. Sean Clifford’s injury changed the game
Any Penn State fan looking for solace can find some in being able to say they’d have won the game had Clifford never gotten hurt. Whether or not that’s true, we’ll never know, but it’s hard to argue the tenor of the game changed after his injury.
Clifford wasn’t spectacular in the first half, and if not for his two interceptions, the Nittany Lions might’ve been able to build a lead too large to surrender. What made the difference was that Iowa’s defense had to respect Clifford’s ability to beat them deep. They did not show Roberson the same level of respect. Once Roberson came in, Iowa loaded the box to take away Penn State’s run game, forcing Roberson to beat them. He couldn’t. Roberson finished seven of 20-for-34 yards and an interception and missed more than a few open receivers.
None of which is to say this loss is on Roberson’s shoulders. He was put in a difficult situation. The sophomore had thrown only eight passes in his college career, and most came in mop-up duty against Ball State and Villanova. Now, he’s suddenly handed a seven-point lead on the road against a top-four team and one of the best defenses in the country. It went about as well as could be reasonably expected.
5. Penn State still has plenty to play for
Penn State had Big Ten title and College Football Playoff hopes before this game started, and it still has them. The Nittany Lions have a conference loss now, but they still have games left against Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State — their primary competition in the East. If the Nittany Lions win out, they win the division and get a likely rematch with this Iowa team in Indianapolis. A one-loss Penn State that wins the Big Ten and picks up those four wins along the way isn’t being left out of the playoff.
Now all Penn State has to do is win those games. That shouldn’t be hard, right?