Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert look back how the Hawkeyes performed in their last-second 21-19 loss to No. 4 Penn State. David Scrivner / Iowa City Press-Citizen
IOWA CITY, Ia. – Now it’s all about the response for the Iowa football team.
And it’s not going to be easy.
“You go right down to the wire, two teams slugging it out, and I mean, nobody left anything out there,” Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz said in the moments after Saturday night’s 21-19 home loss to No. 4 Penn State on the game’s final play. “I think everybody was totally spent.”
You don’t have to rack your memory long to tap into a similar feeling, when the Hawkeyes slugged it out against an elite team in a Big Ten Conference classic, only to fall short by inches on their last defensive snap in the final minute.
This game certainly evoked parallels of the 2015 Big Ten title game, in which Michigan State’s 22-play drive to win on L.J. Scott's reach over the goal line sapped every drip of energy within Hawkeye players' bodies.
Defensive starters on that 2015 Iowa team that were on the field Saturday night in Kinnick Stadium included safety Miles Taylor, linebackers Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann, and defensive linemen Nathan Bazata and Parker Hesse.
“I think it’s pretty comparable,” Hesse said. “Just a game that goes the entire 60.
“Just being a play short. That hurts. You think of all the plays you could’ve made, should’ve made. And that’s the difference of the game.”
Those players – and the others, who weren’t on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf that night in Indianapolis – may be reminded of the humility that happened next for those 2015 Hawkeyes: A Rose Bowl pummeling by Stanford, 45-16.
Iowa had four weeks of prep and recovery time for that one. It has less than a week to strap up and get ready for the next challenge, a road trip to 2-1 Michigan State.
"Yeah, the emotional trauma, damage, whatever you want to call it after a ballgame ... it's always a challenge," Ferentz said. "But that's part of the sports, too. We knew we had 12 games scheduled."
How to regroup?
In addition to sore bodies, it’s the team missive that must be massaged this week.
That’s on the coaches and the senior leaders, who spoke with impressive perspective after Saturday night’s crushing loss on Juwan Johnson’s 7-yard touchdown reception on a Trace McSorley throw that skimmed over safety Amani Hooker’s outstretched fingers as time expired.
“We’ve just got to stick together and don’t let this loss carry over,” said fifth-year senior Akrum Wadley, whose sensational fourth quarter touchdowns of 70 yards (on a third-down reception) and 35 yards (on a run with 1:42 to play) put Iowa in a winning position. “Just flush it.”
Jewell, the Hawkeye star on the other side of the ball with an almost legendary performance (16 tackles, three for losses, an interception, a fumble recovery and two batted-down passes), added: “You can’t let this game ruin the rest of them. You have to have this game help the rest of them.”
To avoid a Stanford-type relapse, the Hawkeyes can't let this linger. They must dig deep and find urgency.
They must understand that if they want to control their own destiny for a Big Ten West championship, a loss is unacceptable Saturday at Spartan Stadium. Division favorite Wisconsin won't be challenged much until mid-November.
As much as this one hurts, they showed they can hang with the best. And Penn State – with the league’s best quarterback and nation’s best running back, a stifling defense and a perseverance to prevail in the most raucous of environments – certainly has established itself as the team to beat in the Big Ten East.
They must build on what Ferentz called his team’s “best week of practice” in advance of Penn State.
They must also realize that they’re going into a possible hornet’s nest, with the prideful Spartans coming off a humbling 38-18 home loss to Notre Dame despite gaining almost 500 yards of offense.
The stakes are simple.
If Iowa loses this week, it has to stomach its first 0-2 Big Ten start since 2008.
If it can find a way take down the Spartans, only a home game vs. the West’s worst team, Illinois, separates itself from a 5-1 overall record entering the bye week with everything to play for.
It’s not going to be easy. But this has to be Iowa’s best week yet.
If it is?
Maybe we can start entertaining the possibility that the Hawkeyes haven’t had their last crack at Saquon Barkley and Penn State.
A possible rematch in the Big Ten Championship game was already on Jewell’s mind Saturday night.
“Everybody’s a little down,” he said. “But you try to keep your head up, and understand it’s not the end of the season. You can always catch them at the end of the season, if you play well.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.