Iowa is never a fun place to play. It’s especially dangerous if you enter as a top-five team with title aspirations. For whatever reason, the Hawkeyes play their best football when they are expected to lose, at night, in Kinnick Stadium. This was again the case Saturday night, as Iowa brought their A-game in front of a prime-time, national audience. While it is tempting to say Penn State did not play anywhere close to its best game, we should start expecting Iowa to counter every punch from a playoff-caliber opponent when the nation is watching. While certainly not pretty, every conference win is crucial, especially in a year with 5 Big Ten road games. Here are the unit grades for the Lions’ thrilling 21-19 win over the Hawkeyes.
Through the first third of the season, the defense has been the biggest surprise. They finally faced a quality opponent (Pitt is just not close), and stifled them nearly the entire game. The unit registered 7 tackles for loss and, recorded a sack. Grant Haley recovered an Akrum Wadley fumble, caused by Marcus Allen, to set up a third quarter touchdown. The only drawbacks were the long scoring plays, accounting for all Iowa’s points. The 21-yard pass after the interception before the half was understandable, as Iowa capitalized on the turnover’s momentum. But Wadley’s 70-yard touchdown catch before the half and the 35-yard go-ahead TD run were the only significant offense Iowa was able to muster. Without those, the game is a two-score victory. It will be imperative to bracket opposing game-breakers to ensure these big plays are minimized.
Defensive Game Ball: DE Shareef Miller
Miller who had a sack and recorded a safety accounting for the final point differential. He has emerged as a totally disruptive force to compliment Allen and Haley in the secondary. Jason Cabinda had a great game as well, leading the Nittany Lions in tackles.
Blake Gillikin proved instrumental in tilting the field in Penn State’s favor in the first half, but Tyler Davis only hit 2 of 4 field goals. No major issues in the opposing return game, but DeAndre Thompkins was held in check on punt returns. The special teams balanced out with Iowa’s, but Davis will need to be more consistent to capitalize on long drives that don’t reach the end zone.
Special Teams Game Ball: P Blake Gillikin
Really, Saquon Barkley A++ and the rest of the offense about a C-. Trace McSorley had a poor game for the first 58 minutes, with a pair of fumbles (1 lost) and an interception that led to the go-ahead touchdown for Iowa. To his credit, McSorley did contribute 61 rushing yards, and ran an effective read option with Barkley in the first half. They struggled to get Gesicki involved in the offense, and the receivers were not consistently effective, especially in the first half. Juwan Johnson came on in the second half, hauling in a key drive-continuing reception along with the final touchdown. McSorley’s play seemed to cause Joe Moorhead to be uncharacteristically conservative, making the halftime adjustment to turn up Barkley’s volume while turning down McSorley’s. I may be reading into it, but it seemed like Moorhead didn’t trust anyone else but Barkley for the majority of the second half. But McSorley dug deep and had engineered a classic final drive, showing his trademark resolve and slinging a perfect pass to Juwan Johnson for the game-winner. For his part, Barkley had his Heisman moment, an other-worldly leap over a defender while getting hit in mid-air, before collecting additional yardage and picking up a first down. He set school records all over the board, and emerged as the clear frontrunner for the Heisman trophy.
Offensive Game Ball: RB Saquon Barkley
Franklin had to know what the environment would be like in Iowa City, and maybe he even appreciated the team undergoing some adversity early on. Up 15-13, it looked like Penn State would finish off the Hawkeyes having driven deep into Iowa territory. When the missed field goal turned into a [luckily too quick] Iowa touchdown, the team maintained the coach and QB’s defiant resolve, and marched promptly down the field to walk off winners. The assistants had good game plans to exploit Iowa’s weaknesses, especially DC Brent Pry. Attitude reflects leadership, and Franklin not only had his team technically ready for the late game drive, he had the team’s collective mindset tuned to the positive. Though every play on the final drive was tense, it really felt like the team believed it would win. Credit Franklin for unifying the entire team to buy into his approach.
Championship teams often have moments in a season when they are pushed to the brink. In 1982, Penn State drove for the winning touchdown against Nebraska. The 1986 team held off a 2-pt conversion against Maryland to hold on for the win. 1994 was The Drive at Illinois. The difference in 2005 and 2008 was the inability to hold on to a victory after having a late lead. In 2005, Michigan scored on a very similar-looking play to the one Penn State used to beat Iowa this year. And the 2008 team blew a 9-point 4th quarter lead in Iowa City. If this team maintains the demeanor of its quarterback, the sky is the limit on what they can achieve together. It will be a fun ride.
About the Author:
Adam Kimmel is the founder and Principal at ASK Consulting Solutions, a technical writing firm specializing in engineering content writing. A 2003 graduate and avid fan of Penn State, Adam has followed Penn State football for over 25 years, attending nearly 50 games and researching historical players and teams. He is also a Manager of R&D, and can be found on LinkedIn