Iowa takeaways: Hawkeye D broken at buzzer, Easley emerges, Jewell swings like McSorley

Chris Cuellar
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Statistics did not favor the side of Iowa’s defense on Saturday night.

Anthony Nelson did.

The defensive end from Urbandale and his exhausted teammates bent to fourth-ranked Penn State’s explosive offense, keeping a lopsided Big Ten Conference opener within reach, but finally broke as time expired.

“I obviously hoped we could make one more stop, but every play is new,” Nelson said. “We try to execute every play and we just obviously weren’t able to do it all through the game.”

For the second season in a row, the Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0) racked up absurd rushing and receiving totals against head coach Kirk Ferentz’s squad, yet struggled in front of a national TV audience and 66,205 fans in Kinnick Stadium to put away the unranked underdogs.

Nelson recorded two early sacks on Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley and kept Iowa (3-1, 0-1) in the game by blocking a field goal with 2 minutes, 42 seconds remaining and batting down a pass with just 4 seconds left on the clock.

It wasn’t enough.

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, right, runs past Iowa defensive end Anthony Nelson during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

“The stat that matters is the score of the game, and they had more points than we did,” Iowa junior defensive end Parker Hesse said. “Our job as a defense, we’ve got to come up with a stop at the end of that game.”

Iowa’s defense allowed 579 yards of offense — 284 through the air, 295 on the ground — in a barrage of 99 plays, including 24 first downs. Penn State’s offense kept defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s unit on the field for 39 minutes and 39 seconds. Of course, the most painful of those moments came when McSorley found Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone, over the outstretched hands of safety Amani Hooker, who was covering the receiver in front of him while trying to make a last-second stop. The effort couldn’t prevent the painful 21-19 loss.

Iowa's Amani Hooker tackles Penn State's Saquon Barkley during their game at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

“I was probably 2 inches away,” Hooker said. “If I would have gone up with one hand instead of two hands, I feel like I would have gotten it. I was just trying to make a play. They made a better play.

“We fought and we didn’t give in. We gave our all out there.”

The Hawkeyes held the defending Big Ten champions to two field goals on their first three trips to the red zone, but failed to get off the field when it mattered. The four forced punts and two forced turnovers — a Josey Jewell interception and fumble recovery off A.J. Epenesa’s sack — didn’t overcome running back Saquon Barkley’s greatness or Penn State’s 3-for-4 effort converting fourth downs, including the game’s final play.

“We’ve been really good in the red zone all year long,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “We just didn’t do a great job tonight. That’s not us. You’ve got to give Iowa credit. I think Iowa played extremely well tonight, they’re very well-coached, fundamentally sound and had a really good plan.”

Franklin’s team totaled 599 yards of offense against the Hawkeyes in 2016, rolling to a 41-14 win at home. Saturday night’s finish was far closer and scarier for the high-powered offense, but it still found a way to break Iowa in the end.

Walk-on emerging as Iowa’s go-to receiver

Nick Easley entered Saturday night’s game as Iowa’s leader in receptions and receiving yards, and didn’t disappoint even as Penn State’s defense held down the home team. The junior walk-on from Newton caught a 21-yard touchdown pass on the first play after a second-quarter interception by Josey Jewell, rising up with his 5-foot-11 frame to help the Hawkeyes to a 7-5 lead.

Easley’s score came after two drops from senior receiver Matt VandeBerg and one from true freshman Ihmir Smith-Marsette on a play that was canceled out by an offensive pass interference penalty on tight end Noah Fant.

Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley pulls in a touchdown pass during the Hawkeyes' game against No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017.

Easley has caught touchdown passes in three of his first four games as a Hawkeye, and could have completed the streak had his catch and run against North Texas not been ruled a fumble and a touchback. The Iowa Western transfer was almost responsible for tipping a pass into an interception in Saturday’s third quarter, but the throw from Nate Stanley was ruled incomplete after a video review.

More Hawkeyes coverage:

Stealing swing from Penn State

Iowa middle linebacker Josey Jewell was a menace to Penn State’s offense, recording eight tackles and two pass-breakups before intercepting quarterback Trace McSorley’s pass in the second quarter. Then, the senior from Decorah celebrated a 33-yard return just like McSorley celebrates his touchdowns with the Nittany Lions — by mimicking a home-run swing.

The post-interception imitation was caught by ABC cameras and savored by Hawkeye fans at home.

Jewell finished the game with 16 total tackles.

“It showed us what we can do,” Jewell said. “I really think that’s a positive thing.

“It sucks to lose it, but it can help us be able to understand we can play with the best of them. We’ve just got to come to work every day in practice.”

A.J. Epenesa showcases explosiveness

The true freshman defensive end disrupted Penn State throughout Saturday night’s slugfest, taking advantage of reserve offensive tackles Andrew Nelson and Will Fries when he spelled Iowa starter Parker Hesse. On a series in the second quarter, Epenesa found himself in the backfield on all three plays, smashing into Nittany Lion star running back Saquon Barkley to break up a potential option read.

"He's improving every single week and taking steps forward," Hesse said. "He got a few more snaps today and had a huge play."

He was credited with a tackle, sack and forced fumble on a hit in the third quarter, breaking free on second down to force McSorley to lose the ball. After starting his career as a third-down specialist, the 6-foot-5, 270-pound athlete from Edwardsville, Illinois has now earned important playing time in all situations.

Hawkeyes host huge recruiting night

A nationally televised night game is a good occasion to welcome potential future players on to the field at Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes took full advantage of the opportunity Saturday, hosting more than 40 committed and uncommitted prospects for visits according to Rivals recruiting site Hawkeye Report. The group included local 2018 recruits like Solon’s Tyler Linderbaum, Iowa City West’s Dillon Doyle and the committed contingent from Indianapolis consisting of Tyrone Tracy, Larry Tracy, Julius Brents and D.J. Johnson.

A massive number of uncommitted targets — from 2018 through 2021 — were headlined by Quincy, Illinois running back Jirehl Brock, who holds offers from Iowa and Iowa State, but is reportedly receiving interest from programs like Alabama as a four-star prospect.

The visits were considered unofficials by Iowa. The Hawkeyes currently have 13 verbal commitments in the class of 2018 and four in 2019.