Iowa Hawkeyes defense was stout to the end against Penn State

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Iowa’s defense left everything on the field Saturday, right down to Miles Taylor’s discarded mouth guard.

The final play of Penn State’s 21-19 victory will leave a bitter taste for years to come. But a Hawkeye defense that felt humiliated last year by the Nittany Lions has reason to feel proud of how it held up over 99 plays against the No. 4 team in the nation.

“It’s just a mindset,” Hawkeye cornerback Josh Jackson said. “We have to keep fighting. I thought we did that all game, no matter what the situation was. We came out, we stood strong, we kept fighting.”

Iowa's Amani Hooker tackles Penn State's Saquon Barkley during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

The Nittany Lions pulled out the victory on a do-or-die fourth-and-goal play from the 7-yard line as time expired. Quarterback Trace McSorley fired a dart to Juwan Johnson, who had gotten in between defenders as the Hawkeyes sent a blitz.

Taylor, a senior safety, responded by cursing and throwing his mouth guard onto the Kinnick Stadium turf, where it still lay an hour after the game.

Fellow safety Amani Hooker, making his first career start, nearly got his fingertips on McSorley’s winning  pass.

It was a game of inches, not yards, thanks to Iowa’s defense, which was stout when it needed to be.

The Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten Conference) gave up 579 yards, but that statistic belies how well they played. Iowa got crushed 41-14 last season at Penn State because it couldn’t keep the Nittany Lions out of the end zone early.

On Saturday, the Hawkeyes held the Nittany Lions out of the end zone in the first half, the first time that had happened this season. Iowa was remarkable in the red zone, forcing Penn State to try four field goals, only two of which were successful.

Iowa became the first defense to limit Penn State to fewer than 30 points in its last 11 games.

A defensive line that had produced only three sacks all season brought McSorley down four times and battered him throughout the game.

Sophomore defensive end Anthony Nelson had 2.5 sacks, two passes batted down and a blocked field goal in the best game of his career. Freshman end A.J. Epenesa, getting his most extensive playing time, had one sack, three other quarterback hurries and a forced fumble. Sam Brincks, another reserve defensive end, had one of the game’s biggest plays when he got his hands on McSorley just as he threw a second-quarter pass, causing an interception that led to Iowa’s first touchdown.

“We play better when we can rotate guys through,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said after using eight defensive linemen and substituting so liberally that there were times when the entire position group was swapped out. “So the more guys we get in the rotation, hopefully we can stay fresher a little bit that way and keep building on what we did (Saturday).”

Hawkeye middle linebacker Josey Jewell had a career-high three tackles for loss, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble and proved again why he’s an all-American. The entire defense seemed to feed off of him.

Hooker, a sophomore, played all 99 snaps and had 13 tackles and one pass broken up.  Cornerback Manny Rugamba had a career-high nine tackles.

There were superlatives throughout the defense, which was forced to play 39 minutes, 39 seconds against probably the best offense it will see all season and never wilted. It certainly won’t have to contend with an offensive player as talented as Penn State tailback Saquon Barkley (305 yards from scrimmage) again this regular season.

“They drove the ball down the field and got within the 5-yard line and we stopped them twice. As a defense, we bent a lot, but we didn’t break overall,” Hooker said. “There’s a lot to take away from our toughness. … We were tired, yeah, but that wasn’t stopping us. We were still going to fight through.”

The question now is how much fight Iowa will have left this week, with a trip to Michigan State (2-1) for a 3 p.m. kickoff Saturday. The Spartans will be eager to bounce back from a 38-18 loss to Notre Dame and have shown an ability to move the ball, averaging six yards per play and 35 minutes of possession time per game.

Michigan State has a dual-threat quarterback in Brian Lewerke, who has thrown for 751 yards and six touchdowns and rushed for 206 yards and another two scores. And, of course, no one needs to remind the Hawkeyes of how devastating Spartan tailback L.J. Scott can be.

It will be another tough test for the Iowa defense, coming off a 99-play epic that provided plenty of lessons, foremost that every one of those plays was equally important.

“The thing about losing on the last play like that, it reminds you of the value of every single snap in a game. You think back to that one play you should have made or one play you could have made, and that’s the difference in the game. That one play, whether it was in the second or third quarter, that was the difference,” Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said. “So, a loss is a loss. We train year-round to win every Saturday, so it’s going to hurt when you come off.”