Leistikow's thoughts: Fittingly, Kirk Ferentz's 100th Big Ten victory comes in Happy Valley
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Winning in Happy Valley has been memorable for Kirk Ferentz, but it’s never been easy.
So even with a 24-point, third-quarter lead Saturday at Beaver Stadium, Ferentz had to know he wasn’t going to waltz to his 100th Big Ten Conference win as a head coach.
But his Iowa Hawkeyes proved resilient in the shadows of Mount Nittany, with Daviyon Nixon's rumbling, not-stumbling 71-yard interception-return touchdown clinching a 41-21 win that sent Penn State to the first 0-5 start to a season in its 134-year history. It was Ferentz's fifth win here, but the first in 11 years.
“It’s been a while since we won up here. I almost forgot how it feels to come out of here with a victory," Ferentz said. "It’s not easy, it never is. I’m really proud of our team. It was a hard-fought game and a really important win for us to keep moving forward.”
And in improving to 3-2, Iowa delivered another complete performance.
Spencer Petras had one of his sharpest games, connecting on 64% of his passes without an interception and led an offense that produced Iowa’s most points in Happy Valley since a 42-35 overtime triumph in 2002.
The running tandem of Mekhi Sargent (101 yards) and Tyler Goodson (78 yards) chewed up valuable clock and combined for three touchdowns.
Nick Niemann’s 17-tackle day spearheaded a defense that bent a few times but forced four more turnovers, logged five sacks and didn’t break.
And, most importantly, Iowa snapped a six-loss streak in the Penn State series that it dominated in Ferentz's early years. The Pittsburgh-raised Ferentz collected a program-changing, double-overtime win here in 2000. He won that 2002 thriller that launched an unbeaten Big Ten Conference season. The 2004 win by a score of 6-4 came on the week of his father's death. And then the 21-10 win in 2009, fueled by Adrian Clayborn's blocked-punt touchdown, set the stage for an Orange Bowl-winning season.
When Penn State chopped a 31-7 deficit to 31-21 and had the ball in the fourth quarter, Ferentz was having flashbacks to 2002 — when the Hawkeyes lost a 35-13 lead and had to prevail in overtime.
"To experience the adversity a little bit and the bumps, everybody just kept playing and stuck together," Ferentz said. "I'm really happy about that."
Ferentz was given a game ball by athletics director Gary Barta and a standing ovation from his joyous team.
As Ferentz's predecessor, Hayden Fry, once said here: It was a "Happy Hawkeye Valley" on Saturday.
"There’s no one we would rather play for," Petras said of Ferentz, who is now 165-106 in all games at Iowa in 22 years "Great coach, outstanding accomplishment, especially at a historic place like Penn State.”
The Iowa run game needed to change something against Penn State, and it did.
During the Hawkeyes’ 0-4 run against Penn State as an East crossover partner, running the football had been difficult. In those four losses, Iowa was averaging just 79.3 rushing yards per game and a paltry 2.71 per carry. That included a 30-carry, 70-yard outing in last year’s 17-12 defeat.
On Saturday, a few Iowa wrinkles — and just some flat-out better blocking — got the job done.
Earlier in the week, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz was talking about the Wildcat formation and emphasized how it was forcing opponents to defend more formations. But he added: “We need to continue to evolve there and make sure that we're staying ahead of the curve.”
Iowa on multiple occasions ran a three-running back, no-quarterback set Saturday, with Goodson taking a direct snap and being flanked by Sargent and Ivory Kelly-Martin. The first time, Goodson handed to Sargent for eight yards to the left that spurred Iowa’s first touchdown drive. The second time, Goodson handed to Kelly-Martin for nine yards around the right end. The third time, Goodson kept it and was stuffed for a loss of one yard. (Hey, I didn’t say it worked every time. But the variety is good.)
For the day, the Hawkeyes racked up four rushing touchdowns after combining for one over the previous four years. Even those runs showed creativity, with Sargent taking a toss sweep from the 1 and following Cole Banwart into the end zone for a 17-7 lead. Later, Brian Ferentz sent in a quarterback sneak on third-and-2 from the Penn State 3. It worked, with Petras following roommate Tyler Linderbaum — the tenacious center — easily into the end zone for a 31-7 advantage.
"It's not me, I'll tell you that much. I'm not the strongest of the litter," Petras joked. "Just a great job up front, getting the push. I'll take those guys against anyone."
Iowa finished with 175 rushing yards on 46 attempts. Finally, a good day on the ground against Penn State.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker seemed puzzled this week that Penn State might not start Sean Clifford at quarterback.
So perhaps he was relieved when Will Levis got the starting call; it was Clifford who was tough on the Hawkeyes a year ago in that 17-12 Penn State win. Levis, though, knifed through the Hawkeyes' defense on the Nittany Lions' second drive. He kept the ball seven times and gained four first downs, totaling 44 yards. Penn State was ahead 7-3, its first lead since the season opener against Indiana.
But Iowa adjusted on Levis, and that quarterback run game went away ... as did the run game, period. Penn State was held to two rushing yards in the second quarter on 11 attempts, then minus-5 in the third quarter. That brought in Clifford, at last, and he gave the Nittany Lions a jolt with touchdown passes on his first two throws, of 28 and 68 yards to chop Iowa's lead to 31-21.
Good thing, maybe, that Penn State didn't go to Clifford sooner. We were reminded, though, why Clifford was benched: his penchant for turnovers. Iowa got to him with two interceptions as the Nittany Lions tried to mount a late rally, the biggest one coming for Chauncey Golston after a blitz by Niemann and Dane Belton forced a hurried throw and a Nixon deflection.
Parker's defense yielded 21 points Saturday, yes, but for the 22nd time in a row held an opponent below 30 points. That's the longest streak in the nation.
James Franklin has been known to make puzzling moves during his Penn State tenure, and going for a fourth-and-2 late in the first half has to rank right up there.
Iowa had just made a third-and-1 stuff and wasn’t calling timeout, giving the Nittany Lions a free path to get to halftime down 17-7. But instead, Franklin inexplicably left his offense on the field from his own 49-yard line and a minute left. Will Levis’ sideline pass had no chance, and suddenly, the Hawkeyes had the ball in Penn State territory with 53 seconds to go.
“We consider that a turnover. That’s huge for our defense,” said Zach VanValkenburg, who had two fumble recoveries. “That was a big turning point in the game.”
What happened next was also nice to see from Iowa’s perspective — a productive two-minute drill. Petras had struggled in that area against Purdue and Northwestern. In this situation Saturday, the sophomore methodically took what Penn State’s defense allowed. Petras went 4-for-5 for 40 yards on the drive, including a really smart dump-off pass to Goodson for eight yards. Sargent finished the drive with 11 seconds to spare, a 1-yard run that seemingly punctuated a fantastic Iowa first half.
"We had all three timeouts and good field position, so at that point it was, 'Let's go for it and get some points,'" Petras said. "After you hit a couple plays, you're thinking, 'Alright, let's get a touchdown.' ... It was a great job all around."
Iowa would’ve gladly taken a punt and a knee and a 17-7 halftime lead. Instead, it was 24-7 with an assist from Franklin.
Some final thoughts ...
- Niemann's 17 tackles was the most by a Hawkeye since Anthony Hitchens had 19 against Iowa State in 2012. Thirteen of Niemann's tackles came in the first half. “I think the D-line probably played a big role in that," Niemann said. "Those guys were doing their jobs, keeping the linemen off the linebackers.”
- Iowa's two middle linebackers rotated, as promised, and combined for 15 tackles of their own. Seth Benson (eight tackles) started, and Jack Campbell (seven tackles) provided excellent relief. It's going to be hard to take either one off the field, so maybe we'll just see the rotation continue. It's worked well these past two weeks.
- Jack Plumb got his first meaningful snaps at right tackle, with Mark Kallenberger exiting in the second half. Ferentz said Kallenberger had been hobbled. Coy Cronk, who began the season at right tackle, made the trip but was not in uniform and missed his third straight game with an injury.
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.