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Leistikow: As Penn State spirals, Iowa stays the course — and dominates

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Up in the Beaver Stadium press box Saturday night, members of the Penn State media could be overheard calculating what coach James Franklin’s buyout would be. In the meantime, on a nearby TV screen as reporters pecked away at their postgame articles, Michigan was having a tough time with Rutgers.

Seeing these historic titans of college football struggle to hold things together in 2020 makes what the Iowa football program has done over the past three weeks — heck, the past five months — all the more impressive.

After the Hawkeyes’ back-to-back losses to start the coronavirus-shortened season …

After the emotional and soul-searching offseason they endured with a racial-bias investigation into the program and the removal of their longtime strength coach …

They could’ve crumbled.

Instead, as linebacker Nick Niemann told us Saturday night, Iowa players made a bold decision after their 0-2 start: They weren’t going to lose another game this season.

It might not have been a guarantee. But it was at least the new standard.

“We knew what we were capable of doing,” Niemann said after the Hawkeyes resoundingly defeated Penn State 41-21. “It was kind of just putting our foot down and making the decision that we weren’t going to let the train go off the tracks and let this thing spiral out of control. We were going to show up, keep working and play like we were capable of.”

For three straight weeks, Iowa has outclassed and outplayed its opponent.

They’ve outscored Michigan State, Minnesota and now Penn State by a combined 90 points.

Hawkeyes 125, Other Guys 35.

Iowa's Jack Koerner (28), linebacker Nick Niemann (49) and defensive lineman Austin Schulte (74) celebrate a fourth-down stop of Penn State in Saturday's 41-21 win.

The last time Iowa outscored three straight Big Ten opponents in a season by that many points? You’d have to go back to 2002 — Kirk Ferentz’s finest team in 22 years. Iowa finished that historic season by beating its final three conference foes by a collective score of 127-34.

By no means am I comparing the 2020 Hawkeyes to 2002, but that’s just a reflection of how dominant these last three weeks have been and just how well they’ve played.

On Oct. 31 after a 21-20 loss to Northwestern, I was writing that the Hawkeyes lacked an offensive identity after attempting 51 passes. They’ve since found it, with a relentless team of blockers — wide receivers included — that clear paths for the running game. Iowa racked up another 175 yards on the ground Saturday, complementing the 186 from improving quarterback Spencer Petras through the air.

The defense continues to be an 11-man unit of ball hawks. The Hawkeyes logged five sacks and caused four Penn State turnovers, punctuated by Daviyon Nixon’s lumbering 71-yard interception return with 1 minute, 58 seconds to play. It seems like every week, somebody new is stepping up for defensive coordinator Phil Parker.

ANALYSIS:Iowa's defensive line has become a force

When Ferentz raised a game ball in the locker room after recording his 100th Big Ten Conference win as a head coach, he saw a cheering bunch of players who care deeply about football, about this program, about not letting things slide. That’s why that moment and this win means so much. It's validation that, so far, Ferentz has kept this team together.

“We’ve got really good football players on our team. Good to work with. They try. They try their ass off,” Ferentz said. “Things don’t always go the way they want, but they try. As long as they’re doing that, you’ve got a chance to grow. And that’s what this is all about.”

It was impossible to miss the contrast in program trajectories here Saturday.

On the other sideline, Penn State was left to wonder what's going on after dropping to 0-5 for the first time in its program history. Those aren’t bad players out there. But something’s not right.

And on Saturday, Iowa took advantage.

“If they can be 0-5, that means anybody can be 0-5,” Ferentz said. “There’s no guarantees."

Ferentz knows after Northwestern improved to 5-0 with a 17-7 win against Wisconsin that his Hawkeyes’ last realistic path to the Big Ten title game was probably closed Saturday. The Wildcats have three games to go (against Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois, who are a combined 5-9) and own the head-to-head tiebreaker over 3-2 Iowa in the West division.

The goal, in Ferentz’s mind, after the 0-2 start was “just maximize every opportunity. You can’t do anything about yesterday. I learned that from a very wise man.”

Where do the Hawkeyes go from here?

Well, some great opportunities exist.

Nebraska and Illinois are next, and considering Iowa is 10-0 against those programs the past five years, you have to like the Hawkeyes’ chances. Then comes a chance to finally get over the hump against Wisconsin, following heartbreaking losses to the Badgers each of the past two years and just one win against them in the last decade. That would really be satisfying.

Then there’s Champions week. A matchup with Indiana, which pushed Ohio State to the limit Saturday, would be pretty cool.

Clearly, the Hawkeyes have found plenty of internal motivation. And the enjoyment from these wins is building. Penn State would love to remember what it’s like to win a game.

“The challenge,” Niemann said, “is to keep it up and make the most out of this season and end it in a way we’re all happy about.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.