Leistikow's 5 thoughts: Is Saturday vs. Penn State the biggest Iowa football home game since 1985?

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — Is Saturday’s Iowa-Penn State showdown the biggest home game of the Kirk Ferentz era?

The rankings would say yes.

The Hawkeyes’ No. 3 ranking ties their highest mark in Ferentz’s 23 years. Only the 2002 team (for two weeks) and 2015 (for one) reached as high as third.

Meanwhile, the No. 4 Nittany Lions are just the ninth top-five team to come into Kinnick Stadium since Ferentz’s first season in 1999.

So, Saturday will feature the first top-five matchup in Kinnick since, well, you probably already know: No. 1 Iowa vs. No. 2 Michigan in 1985.

That was an October battle of 5-0 teams, just like Saturday will be. Ferentz was on Hayden Fry's staff for that 12-10 Hawkeye win in 1985 and relayed to his players that Saturday's environment will have a different feel.

"The energy when you walked into the stadium that day, it's rare," Ferentz said. "When you get in an environment like that ... there's certain games you can feel it when you walk into the stadium, especially when the crowd gets in there."

Penn State at Iowa is a "stripe-out" game Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, just as it was here in 2017 (pictured) and 2019.

Even in Big Ten history, this is a rare matchup. This is the first regular-season meeting of top-five conference teams NOT involving Ohio State since 1997. It’s the first not involving Ohio State or Michigan since 1962!

Yes, I can think of some games at Kinnick that had bigger stakes. For example, Iowa’s 2004 home finale against No. 9 Wisconsin had a Big Ten championship on the line. (The Hawkeyes won, 30-7.)

Saturday’s Iowa-Penn State game won’t determine a conference champion; in fact, these two could conceivably meet again Dec. 4 in Indianapolis, with the winner going to the College Football Playoff.

Iowa’s 2006 home game against No. 1 Ohio State was big at the time. The Hawkeyes were 4-0 and ranked No. 13 nationally, and ESPN’s College GameDay was here (and hasn’t been back since). Ohio State won, 38-17. Every home game in 2009 and 2015 became huge as Iowa’s unbeaten record kept rolling.

So, biggest game or not, Iowa players are appreciative of the level of national intrigue (and impact) that this game brings. Considering there hasn't been one of these for 38 years at Kinnick, they know this is probably the only top-five home matchup they'll ever experience at Iowa.

"It’s a great opportunity. It’s important to not make it more than it is; because it is just a football game," Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. "We’ve played five, and this is our sixth one. But it’s a big deal. It’s going to be a lot of fun. … This is why you play football, for games like this."

Iowa is favored by 2½ points in Saturday’s 3 p.m., Fox-televised matchup.

MORE: Aggressive offense, better blocking the highlight of Iowa's dominant win on the road at Maryland

Four of the past five times a top-five opponent came to Kinnick, the Hawkeyes won.

Let’s go to the scorecard (using the Associated Press rankings).

  • 2017: Iowa 55, No. 3 Ohio State 24
  • 2017: No. 4 Penn State 21, Iowa 19
  • 2016: Iowa 14, No. 2 Michigan 13
  • 2010: No. 18 Iowa 37, No. 5 Michigan State 6
  • 2008: Iowa 24, No. 3 Penn State 23

That 4-1 record vs. top-five teams at Kinnick comes with some pretty special moments — walk-off field goals toward the South uprights from Daniel Murray (in 2008) and Keith Duncan (2016) plus two unforeseen blowouts of national juggernauts.

Of course, the one loss in there was to a James Franklin-coached Penn State team … on the last play of the terrific 2017 game, Trace McSorley’s 7-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson. (Sorry to bring that up.)

But the Hawkeyes should have confidence in playing at home against a top-five team. As a program, they’ve proven to be up to the challenge — even when an underdog by three or more touchdowns (as was the case vs. Michigan in 2016 and Ohio State in 2017).

Two current fifth-year senior Hawkeyes played as true freshmen in that 2017 blowout of Ohio State — running back Ivory Kelly-Martin and cornerback Matt Hankins. They both played in the heartbreaking home loss to the Nittany Lions that year, too.

MORE: How to watch and stream Iowa vs. Penn State football

Iowa players were in a unique position last Saturday — a win in the bag, with football to watch.

Sam LaPorta said he got back to his apartment around 5 a.m. Saturday after Iowa’s 51-14 win at Maryland that ended around midnight Eastern Time. But he was too excited for a college football Saturday off to worry about a ton of sleep.

"Got a couple (hours) on the plane, a couple in my bed. It was all right," the Hawkeye tight end and leading pass-catcher said. "It was nice to sit on the couch, feel like a normal student again. I literally watched football all day. I get my off day, and then I watch football all day."

There were some games of interest Saturday morning — Michigan-Wisconsin, Georgia-Arkansas, Alabama-Ole Miss — and through the night. Nine ranked teams went down, including then-No. 3 Oregon at Stanford. Iowa safety Kaevon Merriweather was tuned into that night’s Indiana-Penn State game with great interest: Iowa’s first opponent of this season against its next.

"Once I saw Oregon lost, I understood it was going to be a top-four matchup," Merriweather said, "and what the environment was going to be like."

It was hard for players to miss TV broadcasters talking about their team with great adulation. They know Iowa City is the center of the college football universe this week.

"It can be a big distraction with your own environment. You kind of focus on what's important," all-American center Tyler Linderbaum said. "We’re going to come in on Saturday for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to win the game."

MORE: It's Altoona, Iowa vs. Altoona, Pennsylvania with Iowa-Penn State on Saturday

One of the topics of this gigantic matchup? Quarterback sneaks.

Petras always operated in the shotgun formation in high school, but the Californian has fully embraced the importance of going under center then burrowing forward on third-and-1 or goal-line situations. Petras had two rushing touchdowns on 1-yard quarterback sneaks against Maryland on Saturday.

It’s been a useful and successful tool in the Iowa playbook, dating to Nate Stanley’s sneak dominance — especially with Linderbaum at center.

Fans turn to wave to the Children's Hospital after the first quarter against Penn State on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City.

"Whenever we get that call, I think kind of everyone enjoys it, especially when we're successful on it," Linderbaum said. "I feel like that’s what Iowa football is all about. Getting down and dirty. Nothing’s better than a QB sneak, right?"

Iowa has been creative in sneaking at odd times, too. A second-and-3 sneak is not off the table with the Hawkeyes. It’s comical in a way to see Petras, who is not a scrambling quarterback whatsoever, to have three rushing touchdowns in Iowa’s 5-0 start.

"Linderbaum and the two guards are usually pretty incredible at wedging that pile," Petras said. "And if it’s close at all, (Monte) Pottebaum can come in and push that thing forward. So it’s pretty good."

Iowa’s fullback is known to plow into Petras’ back if a little more push is needed. A little helmet to the back is a small price to pay for 6 points.

"He really should get the dang credit for the QB sneaks," Petras said of Pottebaum, who did get his first career rushing touchdown at Maryland. "I’m just kind of like a battering ram, and everyone else is the force. But no, it doesn’t hurt. Especially because it works."

The Penn State player that Kirk Ferentz is most worried about?

Jahan Dotson.

“I'm as impressed with No. 5 as anybody we've seen this year,” Ferentz said. “I say that with all due respect, (because) we've played against some really good players so far. But he's outstanding.”

Dotson comes into this game with 127 career catches for 2,021 yards. He has caught a touchdown pass in six consecutive games, a Penn State program record. The Sean Clifford-to-Dotson connection has produced 18 passing touchdowns, also a program record.

“You just watch him play, there's no wasted movement. He's concise. Everything is really sharp,” Ferentz said. “I have to think the pro guys … like him. He's a really decisive player. He's a talented player, but he's a good football player. He plays hard.”

Though Iowa won last year’s meeting in State College, 41-21, Dotson hit the Hawkeyes for eight catches and 139 yards, including a 68-yard touchdown. Considering Iowa has had problems with some big-time receivers in recent memory — Purdue’s David Bell comes to mind, and even Maryland’s Dontay Demus Jr. was on his way to a big game before getting hurt Friday — this is maybe the scariest part of the Nittany Lions challenge on Saturday.

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.