Leistikow: Iowa football's Big Ten opener at Penn State primed for 'White Out' conditions

Chad Leistikow
Des Moines Register

As if there needed to be yet another storyline attached to Iowa football’s 2023 Big Ten Conference opener at Penn State ...

The Sept. 23 matchup in State College, Pennsylvania, has been designated as Penn State’s iconic “White Out” game, it was revealed Monday in conjunction with a handful of Big Ten matchups being allocated for prime-time broadcasts.

Iowa-Penn State will air at 7 p.m. CT on CBS.

Cue the equally iconic CBS college-football theme music. This will be Iowa's first game on CBS since the 1997 Sun Bowl and first in the regular season since a 20-17 loss vs. Michigan on Oct. 18, 1986.

The Nittany Lion mascot does a front flip with some help from the Penn State cheerleaders during a White Out game against Minnesota at Beaver Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in State College.

This will be quite a Big Ten opener in Kirk Ferentz’s 25th season as Iowa’s head coach.

A crowd of perhaps 110,000-plus almost entirely clad in white − save for a small section of black-and-gold bumblebees in the upper-deck corner − will be salivating for this matchup on many levels.

First, the Nittany Lions with phenom Drew Allar at quarterback and electric running back Nick Singleton are expected to be legit Big Ten East contenders with College Football Playoff hopes. They were recently ranked preseason No. 5 by NCAA.com, and ESPN had them No. 6.

Second, there is a lot of lingering bad blood over the Hawkeyes’ 23-20 win on Oct. 9, 2021, in a top-five showdown at Kinnick Stadium. Some Iowa fans booed some Penn State players who got injured in that game (some of whom returned a play or two later); even Hawkeye special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods dramatically indicated to officials that Nittany Lion players were taking dives to stop the clock as Iowa built comeback momentum after trailing, 17-3.

Three days after the game, Ferentz backed his fans on the injury-faking allegations by saying, “They smelled a rat” and mentioned that two coaches on Iowa’s staff knew of code words like “scuba” or “turtle” that opponents used to feign injuries and stop the clock. Penn State coach James Franklin fired back a day later, saying that faking injuries was “not part of our plan” and that, “I don't think that's the right thing for college football, booing guys when they get hurt.”

Incidentally, Kirk Ferentz’s son-in-law, Iowa recruiting director Tyler Barnes, once worked for Franklin at Vanderbilt. There is little love lost between fans or the Iowa and Penn State programs.

Beyond those angles, there’s the possibility that this will be a monster matchup. There is no guarantee Penn State will be 3-0 by Sept. 23 – it opens with West Virginia, then hosts Delaware and then travels to Illinois before facing Iowa. But if the Nittany Lions survive that start, there’s a good chance they’ll enter the "White Out" (dubbed as the Greatest Show in College Sports) as a top-five team.

Meantime, Iowa could march into Happy Valley with a 3-0 mark of its own. Iowa hosts Utah State on Sept. 2 before traveling to Iowa State (the Cyclones are slight early favorites) and then hosting Western Michigan. What a story it would be if ex-Michigan quarterback Cade McNamara were to lead the unbeaten Hawkeyes into State College with so much already on the line.

McNamara’s only other start in Beaver Stadium was a good one: a 21-17 Michigan win on Nov. 13, 2021, in which McNamara threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns – the game-winner a 47-yard pass to tight end Erick All (who is also now a Hawkeye) with 3:29 remaining.

Penn State’s “White Out” game (yes, that’s a trademarked phrase) is always met with fireworks, repeated renditions of Zombie Nation's "Kernkraft 400" and great anticipation among Nittany Lion fans. Ticket prices always go way up for that game.

And now we know Iowa is the prime-time opponent.

This will mark only the second Iowa appearance in the Penn State “White Out” game.

The first? Only one of the more iconic wins of the Ferentz era.

In 2009, in the fourth game of the season in the Big Ten opener for both teams, the Nittany Lions were No. 5 in the country. But Adrian Clayborn, who blocked a fourth-quarter punt and returned it for a go-ahead touchdown, and the upset-minded Hawkeyes delivered a 21-10 signature win. Iowa would start 9-0 that season and finish No. 7, a Ferentz-era best, in the final national polls.

So yeah, get excited. Iowa-Penn State this year will be lit.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 28 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.