No. 17 Penn State holds on for win over No. 18 Iowa
The narrative surrounding Penn State football this year is that it has been a team that has very strong starts, but struggles to hold onto leads late in games. In the sole two loses the team has this year, against Ohio State and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions held the lead in the fourth quarter only to see it dwindle away in the latter parts of the contest.
This afternoon, when the Nittany Lions welcomed the 18th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes, the script was the exact opposite: They came out extremely flat, but made a slow, gradual comeback throughout the course of the game while holding onto the lead once they got it en route to a 30-24 victory.
"I'm just really proud of our guys," Penn State head coach James Franklin said. "[It was] a gutsy win. I want to thank the fans. The fans were awesome."
Saying the start to this game for was a disaster for Penn State would be an understatement, and a lot of it can be attributed the gusts of wind combined with steady rain throughout the game.
Iowa special teams player Dominique Dafney capitalized on a muffed exchange between long snapper Kyle Vasey and senior punter Blake Gilikin by blocking the punt, which eventually rolled through the back of the end zone, and that was just the beginning of what would be a downward spiral of a first quarter for the Nittany Lions.
This first score from Iowa was a perfect indication of what the rest of the quarter had to hold, as the Hawkeyes capitalized on nearly every mistake the Nittany Lions made. They kept things rolling in the following drive, with senior kicker Miguel Recinos knocking in a 27-yard field goal to advance the lead to 5-0 with 10:09 left to play in the first.
The Hawkeyes didn’t change a thing after they stopped the Nittany Lions once again the following drive, as they recorded their first touchdown of the game on a perfectly executed fake field goal that culminated with offensive lineman Sam Brincks bringing in a recption in the endzone to to extend lead to 12-0.
The Nittany Lions finally responded in their third drive of the game, piecing together a 10-play, 85-yard drive that was capped off by a touchdown reception from senior quarterback Trace McSorley to freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth with 4:51 left to play in the first quarter.
This momentum was short-lived, however, as the Nittany Lions handed the Hawkeyes two more points on a snap that sailed directly over Gilikins' head during an attempted punt, giving the Hawkeyes a one-score lead, 14-7.
Despite making numerous mental errors early on in this contest, the Nittany Lions remained poised, as they responded by turning great defense into better offense.
Junior cornerback Josh Reid picked off Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, and then returned it 44 yards to set the stage for a 3-yard Tommy Stevens touchdown run on the following play.
For the last three drives of the half, Stevens stepped in for McSorley, as he went down with an injury on a failed third down conversion about half way through the second quarter.
"Obviously, we want Trace McSorley on the field, but we have a lot of confidence in Tommy Stevens, we got a lot of confidence in Sean Clifford," Franklin said.
As the Hawkeyes did the entire game, they responded in the next drive with a five-play, 15-yard drive that culminated with a Recinos 49-yard field goal.
The Nittany Lions went three and out in the next drive, but were bailed out by their defense, as the unit held the Hawkeyes on 4th and 10 to give their offense one more chance with only 37 seconds left in the half.
Stevens filled the gap McSorley left with his injury as best as he could, making two big passes to senior wideout DeAndre Thompkins and sophomore wideout KJ Hamler while making a big 4-yard rush to extend the Nittany Lions drive on third down.
Freshman kicker Jake Pinegar started what would be one of his most successful games to date with a 45-yard field goal to even the game at 17 heading into the half.
Franklin’s halftime adjustments clearly paid off, as his team notched the first two scores of the second half with McSorley back under center.
"Everything in me wanted to play," McSorley said in addressing his decision to go back into the game following his injury. "If I could go, I was going."
The first Nittany Lions' score came in their first drive of the half on a 51-yard designed quarterback run by McSorley and the second was a 49-yard field goal from Pinegar to give the Nittany Lions a 27-17 lead.
"The offensive line did a really great job as far as getting their blocks and creating a whole that all I had to do was run straight," McSorley said about his sole touchdown run of the game.
The Hawkeyes came out with a sense of urgency in the fourth quarter, as junior cornerback Geno Stone picked McSorley off and returned it for six to cut the deficit to 27-24 while pumping some life back into his team.
KJ Hamler came up big as he did all night, returning the following kickoff 67 yards, giving the Nittany Lions great field position at the Hawkeye’s 31-yard line. Despite the great field position, the Nittany Lions were unable to punch one in, but Pinegar knocked in another field goal from 44 yards out to pad the lead to 30-24.
This marked the first time a Penn State kicker recorded three field goals of 40-plus yards since Sam Ficken did so in 2013.
"For a young man from Iowa in Jake Pinegar to come up as big as he came up today was huge," Franklin said.
The Hawkeyes marched back down the field with vengeance in two drives later, getting all the way down to the Nittany Lion’s five before being picked off by senior safety Nick Scott.
"We talk about championship habits in our program all the time," Franklin said. "Nick's one of those guys, he's doing everyhting right. He's doing everything right in school, he's treating people right, he's a great leader, he's a great teammate, he's tough and he just keeps getting better."
The combination of great time management and defense allowed the Hawkeyes to get the ball back with 1:33 left to play.
This laid the platform for a blueprint eerily similar to those of the past two losses, a one-score Penn State lead late in the game with the ball in the other team’s hand.
This time, however, the defense held on to secure the Nittany Lions sixth victory of the year.
McSorley had a relatively quiet night in the air, at least by his standards, totaling 167 yards on 11-25 passing. The senior captain also led the team in rushing yards, carrying the ball 12 times for 63 yards and one touchdown.
"He's the best player in college football," Franklin said. "I don't care what anyone says."
Hamler emerged as the best wideout on the field for Penn State. While only totaling five receptions on the night, the sophomore recorded 96 yards while adding even more in his special teams play.
The Nittany Lions head back on the road this week to take in the fifth-ranked Michigan Wolverines. Kickoff is set for Saturday at 3:45 p.m. in the Big House.
"As far as next week, we know it's a big game, they're ranked high, their defense is really good" junior running back Miles Sanders said. "[We're] coming in really confident and we're just gonna grind out this week and be ready to get another one next week"
Cooper Deck is a junior majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email email@example.com.