September 27, 2009
Iowa 21, Penn State 10. The core of Iowa's success last year, especially as the Hawkeyes gelled over the second half of the season, was along the line of scrimmage, on both sides: With thundering running back Shonn Greene, the offense leaned overwhelmingly on the run, and a pair of all-conference defensive tackles led a top-10 effort nationally against the run on defense.
Almost none of the individual talent from those trenches was on the field tonight -- Greene left early for the NFL, and defensive tackles Mitch King and Matt Kroul graduated along with the All-Big Ten center-guard combo of Rob Bruggeman and Seth Olsen. Among the guys who were supposed to be back, both Greene's replacement, Jewel Hampton, and the best returning offensive lineman in the conference, Bryan Bulaga, were both out of uniform. Between the tackles, this was a totally different team.
But that's exactly where Iowa won tonight, as a double-digit road favorite against one of the overwhelming conference favorites: Between the tackles. The Hawkeye D ground the Penn State running game to a halt, giving up a long run for the night of nine yards and sacking Daryll Clark twice, once for a key safety; on offense, they pounded out yards for a pair of steady but unheralded freshman backs, Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher, who combined for 160 yards on almost five per carry, significantly better on both counts than Greene's totals against the Lions last year in Iowa City.
Defensive end Adrian Clayborn bull-rushed way to the game-changing punt block and subsequent return that put the Hawkeyes on top for the first time in the fourth quarter. And when the clock needed to be killed from that point on, they slowly put it out of its misery on 17 straight runs that bled more than nine minutes off the board while putting another 10 points on. During the same span, Penn State had the ball for all of five plays and 29 seconds.
In fact, if the Lions hadn't connected on a 79-yard bomb on their first snap of the game, they wouldn't have had much offense to speak of: Following another epic field goal drive in the first quarter, Penn State's remaining possessions over the last three quarters amounted to three punts, four turnovers, the safety and a missed field goal.
The Hawkeyes certainly didn't get there by the virtues of quarterback Ricky Stanzi, who barely fulfilled the "game manager" portion of his job description with two interceptions and no touchdowns on top of a dismal 42-percent completion rate, and their lack of both consistency and big-play threats in the passing game is likely to cost them somewhere down the stretch. But Clark, the most reliable quarterback in the league, finished with three picks on a mind-numbing 37.5-percent completion rate, mostly because his offensive line couldn't keep Iowa's front four out of the backfield by the fourth quarter. You can still go a long way in this conference without a star-studded passer if you consistently win on the lines, an old formula that's affirmed the Hawkeyes as contenders.