Leistikow's DVR Monday: 5 clutch plays that helped Iowa football take down Penn State

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Every big win has big moments BEFORE the big moment.

You have probably relived the play of the game of Iowa’s 23-20 win against Penn State at Kinnick Stadium several times already.

We certainly wrote about it a lot: Nico Ragaini’s 43-yard touchdown catch with 6 minutes, 26 seconds remaining, on a timely play call and precise throw by Spencer Petras to find a wide-open receiver on a night when almost nothing came easy.

But in what other ways was the Hawkeyes’ win against the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions crafted?

Kirk Ferentz often says there are five plays that decide every game.

If we take out the Petras-to-Ragaini touchdown (a given), here are five more in sequential order that changed the course of Saturday afternoon and evening. Before these five moments, Penn State was outgaining Iowa, 193-49. After that point (early in the second quarter), Iowa held the Nittany Lions to 0-for-11 on third downs and outgained them, 256-94.

No. 1: How Jack Campbell got a clean hit on Sean Clifford.

"This is a huge moment for the Iowa defense," FOX’s Joel Klatt said shortly before Penn State faced a third-and-7 at Iowa’s 14 and was looking to build on a 14-3 lead. Right on cue, a defensive call by Phil Parker changed the course of the game.

More:How the Iowa Hawkeye defense bounced back after rough start to stifle Penn State

Campbell, the middle linebacker, disguised that he was blitzing — a craft easier said than done — 4 yards off the line of scrimmage, from the left side of Iowa’s defense. At the snap, the 6-foot-5 Campbell took off. Left end Deontae Craig stunted behind inside tackle Noah Shannon, who intentionally ran toward the right tackle … not even going after the quarterback. That sealed a free lane for Campbell, who ultimately had a 12-yard running start on his way to delivering a hard, clean hit on Clifford as he hurried an incomplete pass.

The hit, as you know by now, was Clifford’s final play. He did not return after suffering an undisclosed injury. It looked like Campbell’s helmet hit Clifford just below the armpit. Holding Penn State to a field goal there was huge, as Klatt said.

Knocking out Clifford was even bigger.

No. 2: Petras to Ragaini, Part I.

Down 17-3, Iowa’s offense had to deliver a response if it wanted to stay competitive. Facing a third-and-9 from Penn State’s 38, Petras stared down a Nittany Lions blitz and made one of his shortest but best throws of the game.

Penn State rushed five on the blitz. Right guard Justin Britt and running back Tyler Goodson failed in pass protection, giving linebacker Ellis Brooks and defensive tackle Dvon Ellies clean shots at Petras. They hit him simultaneously, but Petras released his throw just in time — and hit a crossing Ragaini in stride.

More:Opportunistic Iowa football showed up right on time in historic 23-20 win over Penn State

While Petras was crunched by 544 pounds of humanity, the 191-pound Ragaini scooted for 22 yards and a critical first down. Before that completion, Petras was 2-for-11 for 22 yards with an interception. From that point forward, Petras finished 15-for-20 for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Quite a reversal.

A little observation on Charlie Jones’ 9-yard touchdown catch three plays later: Smart play by the fifth-year senior to knock over the pylon with his right hand (with the ball in his left as he dove). I don’t think he was in the end zone; Jones probably doesn’t get the touchdown call from the side judge if the pylon is untouched.

No. 3: Sam LaPorta’s only catch of the game.

The tight end remains Iowa’s leader in receptions (23) and receiving yards (271) for the season. He had just one reception for 8 yards in this one, but it was a biggie.

Down 20-10 and facing a third-and-7 at Penn State’s 43 midway through the third quarter, Iowa's offense was desperate for points. It had gone punt-punt-punt in three possessions after Penn State backup quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson entered and had lost ground on the scoreboard.

More:Iowa postgame mailbag: Loudest Kinnick crowd ever? And cue the Big Ten title game talk

Petras again had little time, after right tackle Nick DeJong was beat to the inside. Petras released the pass just before linebacker Jesse Luketa arrived, and LaPorta was not open. Yet the throw was perfect. Blanketed by safety Ji’Ayir Brown, LaPorta grabbed the ball out of the air just inches from Brown’s reach and secured it while going to the ground for an 8-yard gain. A first down by a yard. Without this conversion, Iowa punts yet again … and the clock becomes a serious Hawkeye enemy.

Big credit to Caleb Shudak, whose 48-yard field goal into the wind turned that key completion into 3 points.

A 42-yard catch-and-run from Keagan Johnson sparked Iowa to outscoring Penn State, 10-0, in the fourth quarter of a 23-20 win.

No. 4: A freshman seizes his moment.

After a fortunate moment in which Petras’ pass to one freshman, Arland Bruce IV, fell incomplete upon being batted in the air, the Iowa quarterback turned to another.

True freshman Keagan Johnson ran a simple curl route along the left sideline on second-and-10 from midfield in the fourth quarter. He turned it into the first of two big finishing plays for the Iowa offense.

More:No. 3 Iowa football vs. No. 4 Penn State report card: What to make of the Hawkeyes' second-half surge

How did Johnson turn a well-timed 6-yard route into a 42-yard gain to Penn State’s 8?

He caught the pass cleanly, then swiveled his hips toward the sideline and ducked through a tackle attempt of future NFL Draft pick Tariq Castro-Fields. The 197-pounder then turned up field and angled inside, then broke another tackle from Brooks at the 23-yard line before spinning ahead to the Penn State 8 while hanging onto the ball to the ground after a big tackle by linebacker Brandon Smith.

A big-time play for the 19-year-old, who has four receptions this season — three of them going for 40-plus yards. Iowa got 3 points off the catch, cutting the gap to 20-16 … and setting the stage for the Petras-to-Ragaini heroics just 1½ clock minutes later.

No. 5: Matt Hankins’ big-time stop.

While history might suggest Iowa had this in the bag after the Ragaini touchdown, Penn State was on the move in the final minutes, down just 3.

And on a fourth-and-3 from Iowa’s 47-yard line with 3:44 remaining, the defense came up big. Namely, Hankins.

The fifth-year senior cornerback read the play beautifully. Lined up on the left against Jahan Dotson, he read the flat pass to 239-pound sophomore running back Keyvone Lee. Hankins (6-0, 185) surged forward and slammed Lee with this right shoulder. No yards after the catch, 1 yard behind the line to gain. Iowa ball.

If Hankins isn’t absolutely on point there, that’s a first down and Penn State is zeroing in on field-goal range (with an excellent kicker) to force overtime at worst. Instead, Iowa had the game in total control.

After Roberson entered, Iowa increased its blitz frequency.

Hat tip to @HawkeyeGameFilm on Twitter for pointing out this stat, that Iowa blitzed Clifford on six of 27 drop-backs but went after Roberson on 12 of 26 drop-backs.

Iowa landed only one sack for the game, an 11-yarder by Deontae Craig that limited Penn State to 3 points early in the third quarter.

Anyone who watched the game knows the extra pressure worked. Iowa made Roberson jumpy in the pocket. But let’s pause to also consider other facts that made Roberson uncomfortable.

No. 1: Penn State’s play-calling and execution. It is bizarre to comprehend that the Nittany Lions, who were leading for most of the game, threw 18 second-half passes compared to Iowa’s 11. Also, Penn State tight ends had three drops of Roberson passes — failing to help out their sophomore quarterback.

No. 2: Field position was not Roberson’s friend. Roberson took 14 snaps inside his own 10-yard line. That is a direct result of Tory Taylor’s precise punting and help from his friends on the coverage unit. Six of Taylor’s nine punts were downed at the Penn State 2, 3, 12, 1, 8 and 8. That was tough.

As for the pressure, a huge play was a chop-block penalty on Penn State that was a result of linebacker Seth Benson’s blitz with 7:12 to go. That pushed Penn State back to its own 11. An ensuing false start pushed it back to the 6 (hat tip, Kinnick fans). Iowa blitzed again on third-and-29 and Roberson was blasted by Benson as he threw incomplete.

More:Kirk Ferentz pleased with No. 3 Iowa football, appreciates fan energy in 23-20 win over No. 4 Penn State

While it was an obvious fortunate turn of events that Clifford left the game in the second quarter, don’t let anyone tell you Iowa won this game because of luck. The Hawkeyes' preparation and execution set them up for success. After a 38-yard punt, Iowa was in business at the Penn State 43 … and on the next play struck for the go-ahead touchdown.

Why having a veteran presence in the Iowa secondary can’t be underestimated.

Jack Koerner’s first-quarter interception of Clifford shouldn’t have looked familiar. But the play call was. Back in 2020 at Penn State, Clifford came off the bench (in relief of Will Levis) to throw back-to-back touchdown passes in the third quarter. The second one was a 68-yarder to Dotson, who ran past Hankins, and a pump fake from Clifford had free safety Koerner a step late in coverage for the completed deep shot.

Saturday, Penn State tried to mimic that play for another touchdown. With Penn State leading 7-3, Dotson again was lined up on the right and again tried to go deep. He faked a cross and ran up the seam past Hankins and Benson. But Koerner didn’t buy the fake this time, and he beat Dotson to the spot of Clifford’s deep pass and corralled it for an interception in the end zone — thwarting a 43-yard touchdown.

Later in the second quarter, Riley Moss recognized Dotson running a deep post and beat the elite receiver downfield to make an over-the-shoulder interception on Roberson’s throw. The fourth-year cornerback’s play all but ended Penn State’s attempts at throwing deep. And that made things that much more predictable for the bloodthirsty Iowa defense.

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.