The PSU Zone team hit the road to Iowa City for our first visit to Kinnick Stadium, hoping to see Penn State become bowl eligible as early they were able. The place is never a pleasant experience for Penn State, win or lose, and Saturday night was no exception. In addition to Iowa’s stout defense, who exposed CB John Reid as a liability in man coverage in the secondary (though not to a fatal extent), the referees were a second opponent Penn State had to face. To its credit, Penn State flexed in the second half, finally distancing themselves and the Hawkeyes in the fourth quarter. Referee John O’Neill, whom fans may remember worked the 2012 Nebraska game and 2014 Ohio State game, and his crew have blown up the internet with their “performance” in Iowa City. Both of those games contained blatant, egregious calls against Penn State, but this year’s Iowa game topped either of those.
Despite all the adversity: Kinnick at night, Iowa wearing all gold for the first time ever, the refs’ best impression of Dick Honig and the gang, Reid’s struggles amid nearly 300 yards by Nate Stanley, and a passing game that struggled mightily at times, the Nittany Lions shut down the Hawkeyes in an all-heart performance. I’m happy to eat crow after predicting Iowa would win 15-13 (though the score was close). Below are the grades for Penn State’s 17-12 win.
Defensive Player of the Game
Windsor led the Nittany Lions defense with 1.5 sacks. Windsor hurried – then destroyed – Stanley on a fourth-quarter pass that was intercepted by dime S Jaquan Brisker.
The Hawkeyes had determined that John Reid was an opportunity, taking the opening kickoff and throwing at him right away. The PSU defensive line played very well against the run, allowing only 70 yards on 30 carries. Nate Stanley had 286 passing yards, passing Drew Tate for second in Iowa history in yards, though he needed 43 passing attempts to do it. Iowa’s offensive scheme was meant to minimize exposure to crippling sacks by employing 3-step drops and screen or short passes to try to get their receivers in space. The Lions, led by Garrett Talyor, had open-field tackles throughout the game to minimize the damage of the wide throws. Penn State’s defense forced Iowa into two turnovers, which resulted in 10 points. That was enough to take down Iowa.
P Blake Gillikin is having a resurgent year, by his high standards (more on him in a moment). K Jake Pinegar was perfect on limited attempts. KR/PR KJ Hamler averaged 19 yards on kick returns, but Iowa kept him quiet on punt runbacks. In a defensive slugfest, special teams offer just as much by not making a mistake as it does by contributing positive plays.
Special Teams Players of the Game
P Blake Gillikin
In a game in which field position strongly influences the outcome, Gillikin tilted the field, limiting Iowa to an average starting field position on its 18-yard line. The numbers: 7 punts for nearly 300 yards, averaging over 42 yards with a long of 61. The special teams game ball may need to be named after Gillikin.
Taking the quality of the awful, AWFUL holding calls out of it, Penn State was technically penalized 8 times for 80 yards. The running game was surprisingly effective against Iowa, usually very stingy in that area for backs not names Saquon. The running back committee rotated as usual early in the game, but by the end, RB Noah Cain capped his second straight 100-yard game and was on the field for all the critical late-game plays. QB Sean Clifford was understandably (though visibly) nervous in the early going, and the jitters manifest throughout the team. As the game went on, Clifford settled down and began using his running ability to open up the backs. WR KJ Hamler led the four players that pass, and Clifford had a paltry 42.1 QB rating. WR Jahan Dotson had a drop and had trouble separating all day. The passing game must improve, as opponents will start stacking the line against the run and rushing Clifford more often.
Offensive Player of the Game
Cain seems to have established himself as the #1 running back, but it remains to be seen whether the coaches will approach the Michigan game that way or continue with the rotation. The best part of Cain’s game is the yards after contact. It seemed that every time he touched the ball, he gained between 5-7 yards. He runs like Tony Hunt and looks to be instrumental in the development of the young offense.
The coaching staff had a good game plan against Iowa, but Nate Stanley should never throw for 286 yards against, well, anyone. The most crucial thing they accomplished was to calm the team down after a shaky first quarter and settle into the game. They have two problems to solve going into the hardest stretch in their schedule: stopping the pass and executing the pass. The coaches lack confidence in the passing game, only throwing to Hamler and TE Pat Freiermuth in the game’s critical moments. Additionally, they will not be able to leave John Reid on an island against the opponents’ best receivers. Reid diagnoses the play well and is in great position, but he was called for two penalties and consistently lost the 50/50 balls, including Iowa’s late touchdown.
We’ll share details of our Iowa football experience in a forthcoming article. But it is worth mentioning that the entire Iowa community was great to us. Their fans introduced themselves, thanked us for coming out, wished us good luck, and even apologized for the abhorrent officiating. The campus was gorgeous, updated and well-kept, and it was such a powerful moment to wave to the children in the hospital adjacent to the stadium at the end of the first quarter. Iowa was a total class act, and it was a great experience as a visiting fan to support our team on the road.
About the Author:
Eric Mayhue is a contributing author and commentator at PSU Zone. An avid sports fan, Eric can talk for hours about the Penn State Nittany Lions of past and present. When he's not cheering on the blue and white, Eric stays active in the internet marketing community and enjoys superhero movies and video games.