Leistikow's 5 thoughts: With one brilliant play call, No. 3 Iowa football delivers in big program moment

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — The Iowa defense smelled blood in the water after knocking Sean Clifford out of the game late in the first half.

The Iowa offense, meanwhile, needed smelling salts for most of this top-five matchup at Kinnick Stadium.

But then, just when the Hawkeyes needed it, came the best play call of the game from Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.

A play-action rollout to the right, as we have seen so many times from this Iowa offense. It’s a staple play that didn’t do much at all most times Saturday against a stiff Penn State defense. But this time, against that vaunted secondary, wide receiver Nico Ragaini stopped his crossing route and turned left to the sideline. He was wide open, and Spencer Petras found the junior receiver for a 43-yard touchdown as Ragaini dived into the corner of the end zone. 

It was the perfect moment at the perfect time and sent Iowa to a 23-20 home victory against the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions.

"It was something we had in our back pocket the whole game," Petras said.

Iowa had taken over possession in prime territory, at Penn State's 43 after a punt, with 6 minutes, 35 seconds to go. Petras estimated that Penn State's attacking defense blitzed on 80% of Iowa's plays Saturday night. For this play to work, Petras said it was "extremely important" that the Nittany Lions weren't blitzing. 

"Just waiting for the right moment to call it," Petras said. "We knew they weren't going to blitz. So we went forward with running the play. ... Just a great call, a great play design. Came at the right moment. Not a moment too soon."

How did Petras know? His film study on pre-snap looks gave him the clue. He didn't know for sure, but when he rolled into a clean pocket, he was able to see Ragaini breaking free to the left sideline.

"It was just going out one way and hopefully they take the bait. The guy took the bait, and Spencer made a perfect throw," Ragaini said after his first touchdown catch since 2019 against Minnesota. "The line blocked extra hard, and Keagan (Johnson) ran his guy off. That's the beauty of it. I get the spotlight for this play but without everybody else, it wouldn't have happened."

Ragaini caught the ball cleanly at the 17, turned and sprinted to the end zone ... outracing linebacker Curtis Jacobs to score just inside the left pylon.

It’ll be a play Hawkeye fans talk about for a long time if this indeed turns into a special season. And it sure seems like that is the way this train is headed after Iowa sidelined an opposing quarterback for the fifth time in six games in improving to 6-0. 

The Hawkeyes rallied from a 17-3 deficit to pull out their 12th straight win as a program. 

For the day, Petras finished 17-for-31 for 195 yards. But he was 3-for-5 for 88 yards in the fourth quarter, with a 42-yarder to Johnson setting up three critical points. 

The defense delivered four interceptions for the day, giving it a national-best 16 for the season. It hassled backup Ta'Quan Roberson into 7-for-21 passing for 34 yards after Clifford was knocked out of the game on a hard hit by middle linebacker Jack Campbell. But the defense doesn't get to enjoy its latest marquee performance without the offense's 10-point fourth quarter — just like Iowa scored 10 points in the fourth to beat Penn State, 24-23, in the 2008 classic.

“When it came down to it, (Petras) made the plays," said cornerback Matt Hankins, who made a key fourth-down stop and had Iowa's fourth interception. "Fourth quarter, we came back and finished.”

Penn State’s with-Clifford strategy used every square inch of Kinnick turf.

Receivers like Jahan Dotson would frequently catch long screen passes while standing along the boundary line, then sprint up field for 4-10 yards. The Nittany Lions used those almost like running plays, because they barely tried any straight-forward handoffs in the first half.

It worked. The strategy forced Iowa’s defensive backs to play wider, and that also opened up the middle of the field for Clifford to use his legs for some back-breaking first downs. Clifford converted a third-and-7 with a 10-yard scramble in the first quarter; he raced 22 yards on a third-and-7 early in the second quarter to set up a Penn State field goal. At that point, the Nittany Lions were 5-for-5 on third downs. (They would go 0-for-11 on third down after that.)

Of Penn State’s first 33 play calls, only six were runs. That’s an 82% frequency of passing calls.

Sure, two of Clifford’s first-quarter passes resulted in interceptions (to Jestin Jacobs and Jack Koerner). But Iowa was uncharacteristically ineffective in turning those miscues into much. The first resulted in a minus-8-yard drive and Caleb Shudak’s 34-yard field goal; the second resulted in a Petras interception, just his second of the season, and a short-field touchdown for Penn State.

Meanwhile, Iowa's offense rebounded from 3 net yards on 11 first-quarter passing calls.

As crisp as the passing-game looked at Maryland last week, Penn State’s veteran secondary combined with a disconnect between the offensive line/Petras/his receivers helped dig the Hawkeyes an early 17-3 hole.

Petras was 1-for-9 for 14 yards and was sacked twice for minus-11 yards on Brian Ferentz’s first 11 passing calls. It looked like the Hawkeyes were so intent on not making mistakes that Petras was erring on the side of throwing the ball away. And even when he hit guys in the hands, bad things happened. His interception went off the hand of Ragaini, and a third-and-12 strike to Sam LaPorta hit the tight end squarely (and would have been a first down), but Penn State did a good job hitting LaPorta as the ball arrived and the ball fell to the turf incomplete.

The interception, Petras said, "was forced. You can’t force anything. Whether it’s in the run game or the pass game, you have to let it happen. ... The biggest thing is patience and keeping a cool head.

"One play at a time, get back on track. And eventually the results show."

Petras' turning point came when he hung in the pocket for a key 22-yard completion to Ragaini on third-and-9 to spur Iowa’s only first-half touchdown. Petras took a wicked hit on the play. Two snaps later, he connected with Charlie Jones, who made a great play near the pylon to secure a 9-yard touchdown and cut Penn State's lead to 17-10.

Petras finished the first half 9-for-20 for 83 yards. The biggest disappointment was a failure to convert a third-and-2 from Penn State’s 47 after Riley Moss grabbed Iowa’s third interception of the first half. Iowa should have either called timeout there or lined up for a quarterback sneak, which is almost always there with Tyler Linderbaum at center. Instead, Petras threw incomplete to a well-covered LaPorta on a shallow cross, and Iowa chose to punt with 47 seconds left in the first half and two timeouts in its pocket.

I didn’t mind the punt call there, though I could see an argument for going for it — with the reasonable-case payoff being to get within 17-13. Given how horribly the first quarter went, I understand Kirk Ferentz’s contentment of getting to the halftime locker room down 7. As it turned out, patience was a good plan.

"It was a team effort for sure. When we weren’t moving the ball, the defense had our back, the special teams had our back," Petras said. "And then we were able to score that touchdown late to put us ahead. That’s awesome. Just a great day. Super proud to be part of this team.”

Moss left in the second quarter with a strange-looking injury.

The senior cornerback collected his fourth interception of the season with an over-the-shoulder, diving grab. As he got up to celebrate, he took a few mild-looking back-pedal steps and then crumpled to the turf while holding his left knee.

Moss did not return and was replaced by Terry Roberts. It was an unfortunate injury loss for Iowa, which has been extremely healthy most of the season. Everyone in the Hawkeyes’ two-deep was available for Saturday’s game.

Ferentz said afterward he was "optimistic" about the nature of the injury but would know more Monday. One of Moss' best friends, Jack Koerner, said there was no doubt that Roberts would do an excellent job in Moss' place. For the game, star Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson had eight catches for 48 yards on 17 targets. That's a job well done by the Iowa secondary, as usual.

"Obviously we're concerned for Riley, but having a guy like Terry that can step in there and do the job just as well was important," Koerner said. 

Iowa’s special teams certainly did its part.

Punter Tory Taylor buried Penn State twice at its own 2-yard line and once at its own 4. His first punt of the day landed at the 1 and backed up like a 9-iron on a par-3. That led to the Hawkeyes’ first 3 points. 

A fourth-quarter punt by Taylor was beautifully angled, with Ivory Kelly-Martin diving to stop it at the 2. Iowa's defense got a three-and-out after that, and Iowa turned that into 3 more points. Taylor would drop two more punts late in the fourth quarter inside the 10-yard line in a terrific performance.

Placekicker Caleb Shudak was clutch. He drilled a 48-yard field goal near the end of the third quarter that kept Iowa within striking distance. That was a missile into the wind from the sixth-year senior, cutting the gap to 20-13. Shudak later added a 36-yarder with 8:08 to go, cutting the gap to 20-16.

Shudak is now 11-for-12 on field goals this year, his only miss being off a terrible snap at Iowa State that wasn’t his fault.

That said, Penn State punter Jordan Stout has a case to be Big Ten special teams player of the week. His booming hang-time punts with a 50.4-yard average made Jones a non-factor.

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.