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Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith talks about his great touchdown catch, but also some frustration over a lack of offensive success. Listen: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — It took a near-miracle for Iowa's offense to finally find the end zone late in Saturday's loss to Penn State.

The Hawkeyes squandered opportunities through three quarters, handed the Nittany Lions 10 points off of turnovers and then watched wide receiver Brandon Smith go up and haul in a 33-yard touchdown pass from Nate Stanley with 2 minutes, 31 seconds to go.

It was as great of a catch as you'll ever see. And all it did was make the final score a little more presentable for those who didn't actually watch the game.

Ninth-ranked Penn State 17, No. 18 Iowa 12. Before a near-sellout crowd of 69,034 at Kinnick Stadium and a national TV audience.

The lasting image won't be Smith's highlight-reel catch. It will be Iowa failing to finish so many drives, a trend now in back-to-back losses against ranked Big Ten Conference opponents.

Even Smith acknowledged it. He was asked if it was frustrating to end so many offensive possessions without scoring touchdowns.

“It can be sometimes, but when your number’s called just make the play. I can’t get myself the ball,” he said.

“When we see an uneven matchup, just take advantage of it.”

Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) walked out of Kinnick Stadium winners, but the Hawkeyes have to feel that victory was within their reach.

Just like it was last Saturday in a 10-3 loss at Michigan.

How did the Hawkeyes squander this one? Stanley said it best.

“We stopped ourselves from scoring,” the senior quarterback said.

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Mark Kallenberger discusses the challenge of facing Penn State's defensive line and his own performance as Iowa's right guard. Hear what he says: Mark Emmert, memmert@gannett.com

In back-to-back weeks. The common themes have been a running game lacking teeth; the interior of the offensive line unable to handle superior athletes; turnovers; and an offensive coordinator/quarterback combination that hasn’t been deft enough to overcome all of that.

Consider:

  • Iowa ran 21 plays on two first-quarter drives and came away with only a 47-yard Keith Duncan field goal.
  • The Hawkeyes reached the Penn State 29-yard line midway through the second quarter, then ran twice up the middle for three total yards and watched Stanley hurry an off-target throw to Nico Ragaini, who was well-covered. To make matters worse, Duncan pushed his 44-yard field-goal attempt wide right to conclude that drive.
  • The next drive might have been Iowa’s most frustrating. The Hawkeyes took over at their 11-yard line with 1 minute, 46 seconds left before halftime. The question was whether the Hawkeyes would play it conservative. To their credit, they did not. A Penn State holding penalty provided some breathing room. Stanley promptly found tight end Nate Wieting — who had been an afterthought in the passing game — for gains of 25 and 11 yards. A beautiful throw to Ihmir Smith-Marsette picked up another 36 yards and put Iowa at the Penn State 4, its first venture into the red zone.

And then?

Stanley handed the ball to Mekhi Sargent for another attempt to find room in the middle of Penn State’s stout defensive line. Like many other such plays Saturday, it did not work. Sargent was stuffed for a 1-yard loss. Stanley then threw the ball behind Smith on a slant route that would have produced a touchdown. His final attempt, to Smith-Marsette, also fell harmlessly to the ground.

Iowa settled for a field goal. The offense never again got into the red zone. Just like against Michigan. Iowa has kept its red-zone perfection intact the past two Saturdays by getting there only three times, and always coming away with field goals.

“We put up over 300 yards (Saturday), so it’s just a matter of finding the end zone. That was tough,” Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “A field goal’s nice, but when you’re on the 4-yard line, you definitely want a touchdown, especially in a game like this.”

There was one more glimmer of hope before the last desperate drive. An 18-yard pass to a wide-open Ragaini took Iowa to the Penn State 37 as the third quarter ended.

The fourth quarter began with this sequence: Incomplete pass to Wieting, 4-yard loss on a run to the right by Toren Young, incomplete pass to Ragaini. Punt.

The defense eventually felt the strain of having to carry the team, of being forced into tough situations by two second-half turnovers in Iowa territory. Penn State scored 10 points off of those.

And that was the ballgame, despite the Smith touchdown. Penn State picked up two first downs after that to salt the game away.

The Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2) couldn’t run the ball, picking up only 70 yards on 30 carries. Iowa rushed for one yard against Michigan.

They didn’t protect it again, suffering two turnovers after coughing it up four times a week ago.

And they couldn’t hold up again against an aggressive defensive front. Stanley was only sacked twice by Penn State, which entered play leading the nation with 25 of them. But he was constantly hurried, and he didn’t always respond well.

Mark Kallenberger made his first start at right guard for Iowa, which found out this week that normal starter Cole Banwart is lost for the season with an injury. He wasn’t pleased with his performance.

“My feet and my hands can be a lot better. For some of the rushes on Nate and some of the sacks, I can take responsibility for that. My fundamentals weren’t very good right there,” said Kallenberger, who has previously played tackle. “Frustrating? Yeah. But we can come back and fix everything.”

That was the tone struck by all of Iowa’s offensive players who spoke afterward. But the team needs to find the fix quickly, because upcoming opponents Northwestern and Wisconsin also field stingy defenses.

Wirfs said the offensive line feels responsible for losses like the past two. He even apologized to the defense.

“A football game starts with us. We start the play, pretty much. So if we’re going, then everyone else is going,” Wirfs said.

“This game and last game, they (the defense) were keeping us in the game, even. And we’re not going out there and putting points on the board. But they keep going out and getting stops.”

Iowa ended up outgaining Penn State 356-294.

The scoreboard revealed how meaningless that statistic was.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.

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