Leistikow's thoughts: Hawkeyes can't land knockout punch in 17-12 loss to Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — For the second straight week, Iowa failed to land a knockout punch against a Big Ten Conference heavyweight.

Rightfully so, most of the criticism out of the 18th-ranked Hawkeyes’ 17-12 loss to No. 9 Penn State on Saturday night will be pointed toward an offense that struggled to crack the goal line. That’s the primary objective of football, after all: to score more points (preferably via touchdowns) than the other team.

Iowa outgained Penn State in yardage 356-294, but lost the game.

Iowa couldn't make enough big plays to beat Penn State in a 17-12 loss.

"Penn State made it rough on us," Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said, "where we weren’t able to execute in critical situations."

Just like against Michigan, Iowa’s offense was boosted with some nice gains. But it couldn’t string enough together to score six-point chunks.

The most critical example of Iowa's failure was when a completion of 36 yards to Ihmir Smith-Marsette created a first-and-goal at the Penn State 4-yard line late in the first half. But after a telegraphed run forced Iowa to use its final timeout, two incomplete passes meant settling for a consolation-prize field goal and a 7-6 halftime deficit.

The Hawkeyes also failed to take advantage of a 29-yard run by Tyler Goodson; several key third-down conversions to Nico Ragaini; even after a pass-interference call in the fourth quarter bailed Iowa out of a deep hole, quarterback Nate Stanley threw an interception under pressure on the next play.

One step forward, two steps back.

“We would just stall out," Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said. "We would get that big chunk, then it’s be a loss of two and we’d lose some momentum.”

It’s not like Iowa’s offense has done zilch these past two weeks; not counting turnovers, it’s actually only had three three-and-outs in 24 possessions until Brandon Smith's miraculous 33-yard touchdown catch with 2 minutes, 31 seconds left game the Hawkeyes a hint of hope.

That's a reflection of an offense that can move the ball but struggles to finish.

“This week and last week, I felt like we did a good job moving the ball against both teams," Ragaini said. "They both have great defenses. Our problem is getting into the end zone right now. I’m sure we’ll figure it out."

The defense can't totally be absolved, either. The Hawkeyes failed to create a single Penn State turnover after logging just one a week ago in a 10-3 loss against Michigan. Iowa is minus-5 in turnovers the past two weeks. That's a losing number.

Give Penn State (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten Conference) credit. It has a dynamic defense. But the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2) weren't up to the task with a chance to make a program statement, particularly when they had the football.

Iowa's valiant defense finally got gassed.

The Hawkeyes hadn’t faced more than 59 opponent snaps in any of their first five games, which allowed them to freely use starting defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston without too much worry of fatigue.

On Saturday, they finally got worn down. And Penn State took advantage, delivering its own knockout punch.

After Stanley’s fourth-quarter interception set up Penn State at the Iowa 35-yard line with 9:22 remaining, the defense immediately forced a pivotal third-and-10. But quarterback Sean Clifford scrambled for an 11-yard gain against Iowa’s nickel defense, and the Hawkeyes were noticeably gassed after that. Noah Cain finished the all-runs drive with a 5-yard rush with 5:17 remaining that all but put the outcome in the bank.

For the game, Penn State ran 77 offensive plays to the Hawkeyes' 73. Iowa’s first five opponents had run 52 (Miami of Ohio), 49 (Rutgers), 54 (Iowa State), 51 (Middle Tennessee State) and 59 (Michigan).

The discrepancy showed.

The defensive optics in the second quarter were reminiscent to a night game at Kinnick last year.

The entire impetus of Iowa transitioning to the 4-2-5 defense in October last season was the visual of outside linebacker Nick Niemann falling flat in pass coverage against Wisconsin wide receivers on a deflating winning drive at Kinnick Stadium.

But Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been forced back into the 4-3 for much of this season, with so many defensive-back injuries. Health finally wasn’t a problem Saturday night, but the insistence to stick with the 4-3 against the most dangerous (healthy) slot receiver in the Big Ten Conference proved costly.

K.J. Hamler, the Nittany Lions’ 5-foot-9 speed demon, burned Iowa linebackers three times on a 15-play, 85-yard march early in the second quarter that changed momentum. Hamler beat Djimon Colbert for six yards on third-and-5; beat Niemann for 13 on second-and-14 to set up a short conversion; then caught a quick out against Niemann on third-and-7 and turned it into a 22-yard touchdown.

Even though Iowa suffered another offensive-line injury, this was the healthiest the defense has been since Week 1.

A season-ending knee injury to starting right guard Cole Banwart occurred in practice this week, putting sophomore Mark Kallenberger into the starting lineup. This was the Bettendorf’s first career start at guard.

But Iowa did welcome back defensive tackle Brady Reiff and cornerback Matt Hankins to the starting lineup; neither had played since Week 2 against Rutgers. Reiff made his impact known on Penn State’s second snap, as he and Cedrick Lattimore engulfed Sean Clifford for a sack.

Hankins, too, was effective. Although he has zero career interceptions, the 13-game starter is an excellent cover cornerback and he locked down the left side of Iowa’s defensive backfield from the start.

"It feels good. I'm 110%," Hankins said. "I just wish we could've gotten the (win) to go along with it."

Riley Moss also returned from a hip injury; the sophomore was inserted as a nickel back twice in the first half. The returns of Hankins and Moss put freshman D.J. Johnson on the bench; he had started Iowa’s previous three games at corner.

Middle linebacker Kristian Welch did leave the game in the third quarter (Ferentz said he didn't think it was serious) and was replaced by Dillon Doyle. 

All it took was a hurry-up offense for Iowa to rediscover the tight end.

Nate Wieting entered Saturday with two catches for 10 yards in five games; hardly typical numbers you’d ever see for Iowa’s starting tight end. But when Iowa was pressed into a two-minute drill in the second quarter, Wieting came up big.

He hauled in a toss over the middle for a gain of 25 yards, in between three Penn State defenders, that kick-started the drive. On the next play, he curled to the right and got out of bounds with an 11-yard gain to Penn State’s 40. That helped set up Duncan’s second field goal and sent the Hawkeyes to the locker room down 7-6.

Wieting finished with four catches for 54 yards.

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.