Iowa 41, Penn State 21: Here's what we learned

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Just when Penn State's offense started making big plays, Iowa defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon made the biggest of them all.

Nixon, a 305-pound defensive tackle, drifted into the passing lane and jumped to snare a Sean Clifford throw, returning it 71 yards for a touchdown that sealed a 41-21 Hawkeye victory Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

It was the fourth turnover generated by the Iowa defense, those leading to 24 points and helping snap a six-game losing streak in this series.

Iowa's offense produced four rushing touchdowns and got two Keith Duncan field goals to build a lead that was 31-7 in the third quarter before Clifford came on in relief of starting quarterback Will Levis. The Nittany Lions (0-5), following a pattern they've adopted all season, rallied for a pair of scores but couldn't complete the comeback against Iowa's opportunistic defense.

It was a third consecutive victory for Iowa (3-2). It was also the third straight Big Ten Conference game in which the Hawkeyes scored more than 30 points, their longest such streak since 2015.

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This one belonged primarily to Iowa's defensive line, which stuffed Penn State's rushing attack and brought heat on the quarterbacks. Defensive end Chauncey Golston grabbed an interception off a Nixon deflection that led to a field goal. Opposite him, Zach VanValkenburg came up with 1.5 tackles for loss and recovered a pair of fumbles.

Iowa got 101 yards rushing from backup tailback Mekhi Sargent, who scored on a pair of 1-yard runs. Tyler Goodson added 78 yards and his sixth rushing touchdown of the season.

It was a complete performance by the Hawkeyes, completed by Nixon's big-man touchdown.

Here's what we learned:

Mekhi Sargent gave Iowa a strong one-two punch at running back Saturday vs. Penn State. The senior had two first-half touchdowns, while starter Tyler Goodson added one more.

Changing QBs can provide a lift

Penn State started Will Levis at quarterback after he nearly led a comeback last week at Nebraska. But Levis could get little going after an early touchdown and with Iowa leading 31-7 in the third quarter, James Franklin went back to last year's starter, Sean Clifford.

You will rarely see a more immediate change of fortunes. Clifford came in after Penn State recovered a fumble at Iowa's 28-yard line and immediately connected with tight end Brenton Strange on a 28-yard scoring pass. Minutes later, after Hawkeye kicker Keith Duncan missed a 50-yard field-goal attempt, Clifford fired a strike to an open Jahan Dotson for a 68-yard touchdown.

Two passes, 14 points, and suddenly the Hawkeyes were not nearly so comfortable.

Penalties don't have to stop drives

In Iowa’s season-opening loss at Purdue, the offense often stopped itself with careless penalties that it was unable to overcome. So it was a sign of growth in the first half Saturday when the Hawkeyes’ first two touchdowns came shortly after the offense had been moved backward after drawing flags.

First, Iowa drew an illegal formation penalty that backed it up from Penn State’s 5-yard line to the 10. Running back Tyler Goodson immediately made that immaterial, taking a misdirection handoff to the left with only one Nittany Lion to beat, linebacker Jesse Luketa. Goodson juked him, then shed a would-be arm tackle to get to the left pylon for a touchdown.

Later in the second quarter, Iowa wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette was called for holding, leaving the offense with a second-and-16. Quarterback Spencer Petras calmly dropped back and found Nico Ragaini for a 26-yard gain to Penn State’s 13-yard line. Iowa had a 17-7 lead two plays later after Mekhi Sargent scored from a yard out.

Don't run up the middle on Iowa

Levis hurt Iowa early by continually running up the middle on designed draw plays. He had 45 yards rushing and led the Nittany Lions to an early touchdown and a 7-3 lead that was their first since the opening week at Indiana. But that option was never there again for Penn State, despite repeated tries in the first half.

Twice, the Iowa defense found itself in third-and-1 situations and absolutely stonewalled Nittany Lion rushing attempts into the center of the line. It was a team effort, led by linebackers Jack Campbell and Nick Niemann, defensive end Zach VanValkenburg, safety Jack Koerner and more. Both times, Penn State then ended up turning the ball over on downs. Iowa’s offense cashed in on the second occasion with another Sargent touchdown just before half for a 24-7 lead.

Iowa next hosts Nebraska at noon Friday.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.