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
Penn State gained 579 yards on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium. That equates to 20,844 inches.
And maybe 2-3 inches on many different plays decided that the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions would prevail, 21-19, against Iowa.
This week’s DVR Monday revisits a painful Hawkeye loss, with a spotlight on the “what-ifs” of Penn State’s winning drive. Also, it unveils changed perceptions.
Maybe the defense wasn’t as good as some thought; and maybe the offense wasn’t as bad.
So close on final drive
Hawkeye fans, nobody will blame you if you don’t want to think about Penn State’s final possession ever again. If you’d rather not peel that Band-Aid, skip ahead to the next section.
But for those with strong stomachs, I pin-pointed some key moments of the 12-play march that went 80 yards and needed every one of the 96 seconds it took.
The first play: Trace McSorley’s first of three drive connections with Juwan Johnson went for 12 yards over the middle. But if nickel-back Michael Ojemudia could’ve made the initial tackle, the clock would’ve kept running. Instead, Johnson broke loose and stumbled forward to cross the first-down marker, which stopped the clock and saved Penn State — by my count — 8 precious seconds.
Fourth-and-2: Just a good throw by McSorley and catch by Penn State’s Saeed Blacknall to beat Manny Rugamba’s tight coverage and extend the drive with a 6-yard gain. An incompletion would've put Iowa's offense in victory formation.
Game of Inches, Part I: A play later, McSorley scrambled for a first down (which saved Penn State its last timeout and 9-10 seconds). Then, he flipped a pass to Johnson up the right sideline — just barely over the fingertips of Ojemudia for an 18-yard gain. Instead of a tipped incompletion, the Nittany Lions were in business at Iowa’s 24 with 24 seconds left.
Barkley gets loose: A screen to Saquon Barkley put covering Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell in a tough spot. For an instant, both players stopped, waiting for the other to make the first move. If Jewell had stayed to Barkley’s outside, he has to cut it inside and stay in bounds — and probably force Penn State to use its final timeout. But Barkley bounced to the boundary, and scooted for 14 yards and got out of bounds, at Iowa’s 10 with 14 seconds left.
The final play/Game of Inches Part II: With 4 seconds left (remember those precious seconds I mentioned earlier?), McSorley made an all-Big Ten throw on fourth-and-goal, hitting Johnson — who juked safety Miles Taylor to break free in the middle of the end zone — over the outstretched fingers of Amani Hooker. Joshua Jackson was coming across the field, too, but just a tad late. It was an absolutely perfect throw. Two or three inches in any other direction, and Iowa improves to 4-0.
Was the defense gassed?
That’s a fair question after Penn State ran 99 plays from scrimmage — plus some others negated by penalty that pushed the night's workload to over 100 snaps for every-down Hawkeyes like Jewell, Ben Niemann, Taylor, Hooker, Jackson and Rugamba.
“I wouldn’t say we were gassed,” Jackson said afterward. “It was, 'Try to get this stop, stay focused.'"
The numbers and video evidence suggest fatigue ultimately crumbled the Hawkeyes' chances.
In the first half: Penn State gained 219 yards on eight possessions, averaging 4.66 yards per play. That's a good number for Iowa's defense. The Hawkeyes led, 7-5.
In the second half: Penn State gained 360 yards on just six possessions and averaged 6.92 yards per play.
I’m not saying the defense didn’t play hard. It certainly did, and had to fight through fatigue — particularly when Iowa’s offense couldn’t get anything mustered in the first three quarters (more on that later). And consider this incredible stat: Penn State’s offense ran 56 plays in Iowa territory, compared with Iowa’s seven in Penn State territory.
But 6.92 per play is too much.
Hawkeye coaches, to their credit, did a good job rotating fresh bodies onto the defensive line. But on the final drive, there was little to no quarterback pressure.
Tracking the snap counts of Iowa’s defensive ends...
Anthony Nelson played all 12 snaps on Penn State’s winning drive and finished the game with 65. Nelson had his best game as a Hawkeye, but he was clearly wiped as he tried to chase McSorley during the final 1:36.
Parker Hesse played 11 of the last 12 snaps and also totaled 65 — some of those at tackle.
Even with those high numbers, their backups both set career highs — Sam Brincks shouldered 38, and freshman A.J. Epenesa 30 (including the first eight on the final drive). With quarterback pressures, Brincks and Epenesa were each responsible for forcing Penn State’s two turnovers.
Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse discusses Saturday's last-second loss to No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium. Chris Cuellar / The Register
So much for safety rotation
Hooker looks like a staple for years to come in Iowa’s secondary.
Making his first career start, the true sophomore from Minneapolis made 13 tackles — upping his season total to 16. Three first-half plays really captured his presence.
Penn State’s first drive: Hooker found himself matched up on a slot receiver on a third-and-4. He quickly and correctly read the screen pass to Barkley, and he jumped into the fray and swallowed Barkley for a 2-yard gain to force a Penn State punt.
Penn State’s third drive: Barkley had one man to beat for a 22-yard touchdown run. He didn't beat him. Hooker stopped Barkley with a firm tackle in the open field at Iowa's 10-yard line. Instead of a touchdown, Penn State settled for a field goal.
Penn State’s sixth drive: Showing he can defend passes, too, Hooker found himself in deep one-on-one coverage with Brandon Polk after Iowa’s blitz didn’t get home. Hooker elevated and knocked away McSorley’s throw, and Iowa stopped the Nittany Lions’ fourth-and-3 attempt on the next play.
In making Hooker the starter over Jake Gervase last week, head coach Kirk Ferentz had suggested Iowa might used a three-man rotation of safeties. But Saturday, it was all Hooker and Taylor.
Quite a starting debut, considering Hooker found himself frequently confronting the new Heisman Trophy favorite.
“I had fun playing (Barkley). I’m a competitor. When I play against the best, I have fun,” Hooker said. “I accepted the challenge. The defense accepted the challenge.”
After Akrum Wadley was tackled for a second-quarter safety to give Penn State a 5-0 lead, ABC announcer Kirk Herbstreit said this of Penn State’s defense: “They do not respect the Hawkeyes’ ability right now to throw, and they are attacking the line of scrimmage, and attacking the running game. Makes it so hard on Wadley and this offensive line.”
That was a common postgame criticism in Hawkeye circles: Why didn’t offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz loosen up Penn State’s defense with the passing game?
Upon review, he tried.
And when the execution was there, it worked. When it wasn’t, it failed.
Iowa’s first four possessions were sabotaged by a lack of basic execution in the passing game.
Possession 1: On Iowa’s second play, quarterback Nate Stanley had Matt VandeBerg wide open over the middle for at least a 20-yard pickup. The throw sailed high. Third-and-9, then punt.
Possession 2: The first play of the drive from Iowa’s own 10 was a safe pass to VandeBerg in the right flat. He dropped it. Instead of a healthy 6-yard gain on first down, it was second-and-10. Two plays later, punt.
Possession 3: On the first play after Iowa got its initial first down, Stanley had VandeBerg open on a short crossing pattern. The throw was slightly off, but VandeBerg flat-out dropped it with open space in front of him. Two plays later, punt.
Possession 4: On third-and-7, Stanley's pass hit freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette over the middle in the hands. Dropped. Iowa was flagged for offensive pass interference, which was declined. Punt.
Once Iowa cleaned up mistakes, the passing game clicked — and so did the running game.
After a 1-for-8 start, Stanley completed 12 of his final 14 attempts for 178 yards.
That opened up the run, as Herbstreit suggested. After Wadley's first 11 carries netted minus-3 yards rushing, his final eight produced 83.
One of Stanley’s final two incompletions? A high third-quarter throw to wide-open Nick Easley that was initially ruled an interception. That turned into a key three-and-out, with Iowa trailing, 15-7.
“Great play call there by Ferentz; execution just off,” Herbstreit observed. “Ball just floated a little bit for Stanley. ... If the execution’s there, that’s a big gain.”
Bottom line: If you’re down on Brian Ferentz’s play-calling, think again.
The calls were there; the connections weren’t. And it all ties together. Instead of long drives — Iowa entered the game sixth nationally in time of possession — Iowa had too many three-and-outs and held the ball for only 20:21 of game clock.
That, in turn, leads to a gassed defense.
And one heartbreaking loss.
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.