UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Regret and frustration from 18th-ranked Iowa’s 30-24 loss at No. 16 Penn State can be epitomized in one single play: an interception by safety Nick Scott with 3 minutes, 18 seconds to go, just as it looked like the Hawkeyes were about to pull a stunning rally out of the Mount Nittany air.
This wasn’t Nate Stanley’s best night. Far from it.
But on this first-and-goal play from the 3-yard line, the Iowa quarterback made the correct initial read on Penn State’s coverage. So, he did as he is coached to do. He changed the play.
He thought that if he could do it in time, it’d be a sure Hawkeye touchdown.
One problem: The play clock winding dangerously close to zero.
The other: The announced crowd of 105,244 was roaring.
In the heat of the moment, this is how it unfolded.
Stanley, lined up in shotgun formation, signaled with criss-crossing arms to his teammates that the previous play (a passing call) was being changed.
“We were in a totally different play,” tight end Noah Fant said. “He’s going with the better look.”
The new play was going to be a quick flare pass to running back Toren Young, who was lined up to Stanley’s left. But again, the play clock was down to about 2 seconds at this point.
Stanley clapped his hands quickly to take the snap before the play clock struck zero.
Here’s what was racing through center Keegan Render’s mind.
“I saw the clock between my legs. I wish I would have just held it and taken a delay of game or a timeout, but it’s not up to me,” Render said. “Nate was calling for the ball, so I snapped it and went with it.
"I trust Nate with my whole heart.”
Head coach Kirk Ferentz saw the confusion and raced onto the field in an effort to call timeout.
“In retrospect, it’d be nice if I had gotten it,” Ferentz said. “There was some traffic there we weren’t anticipating.”
In an eye-opening video posted by Quad Cities TV reporter Adam Rossow, footage shows the field judge at the back of the end zone flinch as he appeared ready to grant Ferentz’s timeout just before Stanley called for the snap. But instead, he let the play go.
As Fant turned to receiver Nick Easley to also communicate the play change, the ball was snapped. That sequence foiled Fant's timing, and he was slow off the line of scrimmage. As a result, Scott was able to watch Stanley’s throw come right toward him. Presumably, Fant was supposed to be a decoy and take Scott into the end zone.
Scott made the easy catch, thwarting Iowa's go-ahead attempt.
“Just tried to rush it,” Stanley said. “With the clock running down, I should have just taken the timeout.”
A touchdown and Miguel Recinos extra point, and Iowa takes a 31-30 lead and lets its defense take a final crack.
Would it have held up against a Trace McSorley-led offense? We’ll never know.
But we do know that, just like the loss to Wisconsin five weeks earlier, Iowa gave away too many opportunities.
With continuously great first-half field position — the Hawkeyes’ average starting point was their own 41.5-yard line on their first seven possessions — Iowa's only touchdown came on a fake field goal.
Stanley's missed deep throw to T.J. Hockenson failed to extend a 14-7 lead to 21-7. A bold fourth-and-10 call with 37 seconds left in the first half backfired, leaving Penn State with the ball at its own 42 — which it converted into a long field goal and a 17-all halftime tie.
On that bizarre play, Stanley went in motion, and backup quarterback Peyton Mansell took a snap and looked toward Hockenson up the left sideline. But it wasn’t there. Ferentz said Mansell had the option of punting the ball but didn’t. Instead, he scrambled for no gain.
“We were taking a shot for another score,” Ferentz said. “It’d have been nice if he’d punted the ball. But I think it kind of got cloudy out there, and that’s part of the risk of that play."
I know some fans want offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz roasted tonight. But I'm fine with being bold; if the play worked, you'd be cheering him.
“We’ve got to put our foot down there, no matter who’s on the field,” defensive end Parker Hesse agreed. “When we get a team down like that, we’ve got to extend that lead.”
But just like that fateful late-game interception, a lack of execution in key moments doomed the Hawkeyes. No longer are they a College Football Playoff dark horse.
For a few hours, the Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten Conference) had the West Division race in their hands after earlier losses by Wisconsin and Purdue. They can still win the West, but they’ll have to win the rest of their games. That’ll be a discussion for next week. A trip to Purdue is next, Iowa's fourth road game in five weeks.
No doubt, Iowa's resiliency will be tested in the coming days.
“We know we’re going to bounce back," Render confidently said through the pain. "It’s going to be all right.”
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.