Leistikow: Valiant Hawkeye effort, but last-second Penn State loss will hurt

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa’s defense did everything it needed to do to give its team a chance on a highly-charged Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium.

It just needed one more play.

Juwan Johnson's 7-yard touchdown pass from Trace McSorley silenced a raucous Kinnick Stadium crowd as time expired, with fourth-ranked Penn State escaping 21-19 before 66,205 fans.

In what will go down as one of the most incredible games in Kinnick history, the Hawkeyes seeming to have turned near-certain defeat into victory when Akrum Wadley scampered 35 yards for a go-ahead touchdown with 1 minute, 42 seconds remaining.

Iowa led 19-15. 

Even though the defense gave up a slew of yards — Penn State gained 579 on Saturday, just 20 fewer than the 599 it racked up in last year's 41-14 laugher in Happy Valley — it played with unquestioned heart all night long.

But it couldn't stop Penn State on two fourth downs — including the final, fourth-and- goal play on a McSorley toss over the middle — on the final drive.

This one's gonna require some healing.

"We're disappointed with the loss," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, visibly disappointed while also proud of his own team's grit. "It's going to hurt for a while, but we'll move on." 

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The Hawkeyes were on the cusp of a 4-0 record and becoming a national story.

For 98 plays (that's not a typo), Iowa's defense kept Penn State at bay.

On the 99th, it finally broke.

Ultimately, this game came down to one primary factor: Penn State has Saquon Barkley, and the Hawkeyes don’t.

The Nittany Lions have a slew of other great players, too. But Barkley’s one-of-a-kind, dazzling runs are the stuff you rarely see on Sundays, let alone Big Ten Conference Saturdays.

The Hawkeyes drew Penn State into the slugfest they hoped for. 

But it was too much Barkley.

He wound up with video-game numbers: 28 carries for 211 yards; 12 receptions for 94 more; and three kick returns for 53, for good measure.

If you're counting at home, that's 43 touches for 358 all-purpose yards.

On a critical third-and-6 in the fourth quarter, a screen pass to Barkley looked dead in the water. And it would’ve been, for most mortal running backs.

But Barkley, in one motion, hurdled Joshua Jackson and absorbed a hit by Amani Hooker and stayed on his feet for a 9-yard gain.

You can’t make this stuff up.

He’s just that good. If Penn State keeps cranking out wins and Barkley stays healthy, there won’t be much drama at the Downtown Athletic Club in New York in mid-December.

Yet there was Iowa, somehow, fighting to the end despite getting more than doubled in total snaps and yards.

And so, even in defeat, that has to serve as a starting point of encouragement.

Josey Jewell, bum ankle and all, had an all-American game of his own. The middle linebacker had 16 tackles, including three for losses, but it was his 33-yard interception return that set up the Hawkeyes’ stirring first-half finish. Iowa led 7-5 at the break after Nick Easley's 21-yard touchdown catch with 37 seconds left despite being outgained 219-54.

Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa are stars in the making along Iowa's defensive line.

The Hawkeyes have fully unleashed Epenesa. The freshman looked like he belonged on the national stage, with his sack and forced fumble of McSorley (that, naturally, Jewell recovered) the highlight of many impressive plays.

Nelson bulled his way into Penn State's backfield for 2.5 sacks and a huge blocked field goal with 2:42 left to give Iowa the ball and a chance to win. The Hawkeye offense responded with a three-play, 80-yard march — one that ultimately might have been a hard-luck case of scoring too quickly for Penn State's dynamic offense.

TAKEAWAYS:Emergence of Easley, Epenesa, and one tuckered-out defense

OFFENSE'S STRUGGLES: Iowa found itself, albeit way too late

There was no quit in the Iowa defense — hardly what Barkley said he saw in the Hawkeyes when he questioned their willingness to be on the field in Beaver Stadium in last year’s program embarrassment.

“That’s something that in general, we want to take pride in. In our effort, in our competitiveness, in our fight," defensive lineman Parker Hesse said. "That’s something we want to be known for. I think every Saturday, we take the field thinking we want people to be impressed … that those guys left it all out there today.”

Offensively, there were obvious struggles. There were dropped passes, missed passes.

Gaining anything in the trenches was a brutal task for Brian Ferentz’s offense, especially in the first three quarters.

The Penn State front seven was for real. Iowa's offensive line might not be.

The front five did OK in pass protection, but the run blocking is hardly the stuff of last year’s Joe Moore Award winning group.

"We couldn’t get drives together," center James Daniels said. "That was the hardest thing, just going three-and-out constantly.”

The question now: Where does Iowa go from here?

Right now, it's OK to be disappointed. And pick up the pieces on Sunday.

This was the first of nine Big Ten games. There's a lot of season left.

"It sucked for all of us, but I think it showed us what we can do," Jewell said. "I think that's a positive thing."

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.