IOWA CITY, Ia. — First came the stripes, then came the shoulder wings with loads of gold below. The fighter jets came soaring over soon after to set the Kinnick Stadium stage. Iowa yanked out all the stops to ensure it had the juice with a top-10 Big Ten foe in town.
What the Hawkeyes forgot to bring were the points.
Alternate uniforms, stadium designs, a national TV evening kickoff and whatever else couldn’t save No. 18 Iowa from its own offensive futility. Iowa scored one touchdown — its first since September — but it was in the waning minutes of the game. No. 9 Penn State was the latest to pounce on Iowa's offensive woes, sidestepping the Kinnick thrills Saturday for a 17-12 win.
Brandon Smith’s circus scoring grab with 2:31 remaining ended Iowa's dubious touchdown drought. But the Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2 Big Ten Conference) still have just two end-zone trips in the last 13 quarters against Power Five teams. Poor field position, inconsistent offensive line play amid more shuffling, an absent running game and relentless Penn State pressure were the ingredients for this futility.
"We just needed a couple more plays," quarterback Nate Stanley said. "That's what it comes down to. We stopped ourselves from scoring."
Two red-zone trips without touchdowns sliced the Iowa defense’s margin for error down to almost nothing. The Hawkeyes again played well enough defensively to topple a hefty foe. It had Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford out of rhythm and kept splash plays to a minimum.
Even when Tyler Goodson was crushed to cough up a third-quarter fumble deep in Penn State territory, Iowa tightened up and held the Nittany Lions (6-0, 3-0) to three.
“We've just got to do things better," defensive end A.J. Epenesa said. "We’re doing the right things. We've just got to do them better.”
Facing a 10-6 deficit entering the fourth, Iowa’s offense had a chance to save the night with one last muster. But Stanley tossed an interception with just under 10 minutes remaining. A gassed defense couldn’t clamp down once more. Noah Cain’s 8-yard touchdown run came with 5:17 left and put Iowa in a bind.
Smith’s grab came too late to erase 58 minutes of futility. Another painful loss in the books.
Here’s what we learned.
Iowa's offense floundered ... again
Iowa tried more Goodson (he was the second running back in and finished as the Hawkeyes’ leading rusher).
Iowa got the tight ends involved some (Nate Wieting had more receiving yards in a 15-second span than he did in the Hawkeyes first five games).
Iowa continued rotating offensive linemen (Mark Kallenberger started for the injured Cole Banwart, while Cody Ince saw more action than he had in a while).
The Hawkeyes have now rushed for fewer than 100 yards in back-to-back games for the first time since September 2017. Six drives gained fewer than 30 yards.
"We've put ourselves in position to not run the ball as much," Stanley said. "Last two games, we've been heavy pass. And we've put ourselves in that position."
Even their two scoring possessions were marred with errors. Iowa had to trot Duncan out the first time after needing five-and-half minutes and 11 plays to move just 38 yards. Duncan’s second connection was only necessary after Iowa botched a prime touchdown chance following Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s 36-yard grab.
Another Saturday largely filled with offensive questions.
Those Indianapolis visions are fading.
Dreams of Indianapolis danced in Hawkeye heads way back into the preseason and first month of the season. A Big Ten West division that seemed up for grabs was there for Iowa to take.
Well, we’re not even halfway through October. And the Hawkeyes will need to play major catch-up in the Big Ten West.
Back-to-back losses coupled with Wisconsin’s emphatic dominance have Iowa looking way up. The Hawkeyes will likely need to win out — which includes a victory Nov. 9 at Camp Randall Stadium — and have the Badgers lose Oct. 26 at Ohio State. And that’s not even factoring in undefeated Minnesota (6-0, 3-0).
There’s plenty of football left, sure. But Iowa is in a serious hole now.
Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.