Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz defends quarterback Nate Stanley, explains key play calls from Saturday's 30-24 loss in Happy Valley. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For all the wacky play-calling and overall zaniness of No. 18 Iowa’s 30-24 loss to No. 16 Penn State, the game would have been so much different if Brian Ferentz’s best call of the day had been properly executed.
On a third-and-1 with his team leading 14-7 in the second quarter, the offensive coordinator called a fake run up the middle. It was beautifully sold by quarterback Nate Stanley. Tight end T.J. Hockenson was so wide-open downfield that it looked like he must’ve started the play on Penn State’s side of the line of scrimmage.
But Stanley’s long toss for a certain touchdown turned into a perplexing overthrow by at least five yards. Incomplete.
Anything but an airmail there is probably a 48-yard touchdown and a 21-7 Iowa lead.
Instead, it was emblematic of one of the choppiest games of Stanley’s career.
“We lost by six. And that’s seven points right there," Stanley said afterward. "Definitely tough.”
The junior quarterback struggled. He had only eight completions through three quarters and finished the day 18-for-49 for 205 yards, with no touchdowns and two interceptions.
He overthrew Nick Easley on what should've been an easy third-down conversion on a crossing pattern. He underthrew a wide-open Noah Fant up the left sideline in the fourth quarter. Many of his throws weren't even close, as he faced the most intense pass rush he's seen all year.
Stanley said he injured his right (throwing) thumb in the fourth quarter.
"Got a hit," he said. "But it’s no excuse for the throws I missed.”
But even through all that, Iowa had a chance to win. Down 30-24 with first-and-goal from Penn State's 3-yard line, Stanley threw the ball directly into the arms of Penn State's Nick Scott for a crushing interception in the final 3 minutes and change. A regretful miscommunication.
Stanley completed just three of his first 14 passing attempts for 48 yards. That start included his second-worst throw of the first half, a toss that looked to be intended for Penn State cornerback John Reid — who promptly returned the interception 44 yards to set up the latest short-field touchdown for an Iowa opponent.
This sentence sums up the struggles: All 24 of Iowa's points Saturday came on special teams and defense.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley completed 18 of 49 passes for 205 yards and had two big interceptions in a 30-24 loss to the Nittany Lions. Chad Leistikow, Hawk Central
Fant’s first target of the game didn’t come until the second half. And that Stanley attempt sailed over Fant’s head.
The usage, or lack thereof, of Iowa’s preseason all-American tight end was notable. And odd. Pick your adjective.
He had no catches in the first three quarters.
Fant, the school’s record holder for touchdowns by a tight end, wasn’t in on any of Iowa’s first three goal-to-go snaps in the first quarter. The Hawkeyes settled for a short field goal and a 5-0 lead.
Fant finally got his first catch in the fourth quarter, a 22-yarder over the middle that gave Iowa's offense a spark. He finished with a team-high five grabs for 56 yards.
Too little, too late.
“It really just depends on the coverage that defense plays," Stanley said. "The plays we were running later matched up with their coverages to get him the ball.”
A defensive tackle probably had Iowa's best reception of the day. Sam Brincks made an impressive 10-yard, over-the-shoulder catch on a toss from punter Colten Rastetter on a first-quarter fake field goal.
The latest superbly executed fake from Iowa special-teams coach LeVar Woods became a footnote Saturday.
Brincks' first career reception gave Iowa a 12-0 lead. He said the play was put in last week, and it worked "every time we ran it" in practice — about five or six times, he said.
When Iowa needs a spark after an opponent’s touchdown, Ihmir Smith-Marsette provides it. The sophomore’s speedy 49-yard kickoff return answered Penn State’s one-play, 3-yard touchdown drive after Stanley’s weekly perplexing interception.
That set up Miguel Recinos’ 49-yard field goal that gave Iowa a 17-14 second-quarter lead.
Iowa’s going to have to replace a very good kicker in 2019. Recinos has been clutch in his fifth-year senior season. Last week, he went 3-for-3 on field goals amid 20-plus mph winds against Maryland. On Saturday, he drilled his first two field goals in soggy conditions — including a career long on that 49-yarder.
That successful field goal was his ninth make in a row.
Caleb Shudak or Keith Duncan will have a big right shoe to fill next year.
Penn State has a good kicker, too — and he’s from Iowa. Nittany Lions freshman Jake Pinegar split the uprights from 45, 49 and 44 yards Saturday. His best game came against his home-state team.
Pinegar was one of two freshmen from Ankeny Centennial High School who played key roles in Saturday’s game.
Iowa started former Jaguar Riley Moss at cornerback for the fourth consecutive game.
The theme of fluctuating linebackers continued again for Iowa, but not by choice. When Kristian Welch exited early in the first quarter with an injury, it meant the return of Jack Hockaday to the middle-linebacker position.
Hockaday missed two games with a meniscus injury he suffered Oct. 6 against Minnesota. He happened to return this week — just in time.
“I’m still not really 100 percent with my knee, but I felt good enough to do my job and do what I needed to do," said Hockaday, who finished with four tackles. "I just needed to stay ready throughout the week.”
Welch did return on special teams and, on occasion, within Iowa’s dime package. So the injury wasn’t serious. But Hockaday, Djimon Colbert and Amani Hooker played linebacker on most downs. It was Hockaday's fumble recovery at Iowa's 10 early in the fourth quarter that kept the Hawkeyes' chances afloat.
In a game with 54 points, both defenses were outstanding. Even though Penn State scored 30 points, the Nittany Lions gained just 312 yards — barely half of the 599 and 579 they put up on Iowa in the 2016 and 2017 games.
One of Penn State's touchdown drives was 3 yards. On another, Trace McSorley got loose for a 51-yard run. He's a great player in a dynamic offense. The Iowa defense scored, too, on Geno Stone's 24-yard interception return.
“From my vantage point," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said, "if you step back, that was two pretty good defensive teams playing.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.