Penn State escapes Iowa with a 21-19 victory in Big Ten opener

Matt Herb, BlueWhiteIllustrated.com
Blue White Illustrated

Saquon Barkley was even more spectacular than usual, Trace McSorley orchestrated a drive for the ages and the defense did a terrific job of bottling up Iowa’s top playmakers for most of the night. As it turned out, Penn State needed all of those heroics and then some to pull out a 21-19 victory over the Hawkeyes.

After Akrum Wadley scored a 35-yard touchdown with 1 minute, 42 seconds to play, it seemed as though the fourth-ranked Lions were about to become the latest victims of a Hawkeyes team known for springing upsets on top-five opponents at home. But McSorley completed 7 of 11 passes on Penn State’s 80-yard final drive, including a 7-yarder to Juwan Johnson as time ran out.

Johnson’s touchdown, the first of his career, gave the Lions a victory in a game they had dominated statistically. They outgained Iowa 579 yards to 273 and held the ball for just under 40 minutes. But because they had repeatedly settled for field goals – and misfired on a couple of those attempts – they needed an act of steely composure in the final minutes to remain unbeaten. As it turned out, they got one.

It was the first time since the Ohio State game last October that they were held below 30 points, as the Hawkeyes did a very effective job of keeping the action in front of them. Barkley gashed them both on the ground and through the air, but he wasn’t able to score the breakaway touchdowns that have become his stock in trade. And when the Lions got close, they couldn’t punch it in.

“I don’t think we played that great tonight in the red zone,” coach James Franklin said. “You have to be able to run the ball in between the tackles. That will set everything else up from there, so we have to get better in that area. I think there’s consistency that we can have on our offensive line so we don’t have moving parts there. That will help us. I think you’ve got to be able to run the ball in the red zone. … I think we’ve done a really good job in the red zone [in recent games]. We just didn’t do a great job tonight.”

Here’s a look at the good and the bad:


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THE GOOD

• Barkley had an astonishing night. He totaled 211 rushing yards, 94 receiving yards and 53 kick-return yards. He only got into the end zone once, on an 8-yard run in the third quarter, but his highlight reel got a lot longer. In the fourth quarter, with Penn State clinging to a 15-13 lead, Barkley straddled a Hawkeyes tackler for a 10-yard gain on a short pass on third-and-6.

• McSorley showed remarkable composure on the Lions’ final drive, throwing for 68 yards and rushing for 12 after Penn State took possession with just 1:42 to play. Iowa is known as one of the most hostile road venues in the Big Ten, so to do what he did in front of a crowd that was surely ready to storm the field was all the more impressive.

On the game’s final play, McSorley fired a dart to Johnson in the middle of a congested end zone and came up with a walk-off touchdown – fitting for a player known for his baseball-themed celebrations.

“In that situation, you have to take a shot to the end zone,” Franklin said. “That’s what [Iowa was] doing all night – playing soft and making you throw the underneath stuff and… making the tackle. Fourth-and-7, last play of the game, the ball has to be thrown into the end zone or close to it.”

• The Lions’ defensive line was down a man, with Torrence Brown out of action following his injury last week vs. Georgia State, but it did a good job against Wadley, particularly in the first half. The senior running back had been averaging 170 all-purpose yards per game, third-best in the Big Ten. He finished with 155 yards against Penn State, and while that might not seem too far off of his pace, he got 35 of those yards on one carry. Prior to that rush, his last of the game, he had gained 45 yards on 18 rushing attempts (2.5 yards per carry).


THE BAD

• Iowa was able to get a lot of pressure on McSorley, totaling four sacks and forcing a couple of fumbles. Even when the Hawkeyes couldn’t get to him, they were frequently able to get a hand on his passes and deflect them off-target or bat them down. Josey Jewell’s second-quarter interception came on a tipped pass.

• When it was time to line up and push Iowa back on the goal line, Penn State wasn’t able to do it. The Lions had to settle for field goals on two drives that reached inside the Hawkeyes’ 5-yard line.

• The Nittany Lions weren’t able to capitalize on great field position early in the game. They went three-and-out on two early drives that started in Iowa territory, and they settled for a field goal on a first-half possession that started at Iowa’s 33.

• More problems on the field goal team, as Tyler Davis pushed a 41-yarder wide left in the second quarter, then had a 31-yard attempt blocked late in the fourth quarter.

“Tyler has obviously been very, very good for a number of years,” Franklin said. “We have got to be firmer [up front]. The defender came right through the middle of our protection [on the block]. I don’t think it was the kick. The guy pretty much came clean through. We obviously have to get that cleaned up.”


LOOKING AHEAD

The Nittany Lions will don their throwback uniforms for this week’s conference home opener against Indiana. They’ll be hoping for some throwback offensive productivity coming off a game in which they scored just two touchdowns on five red zone incursions.

The Hoosiers improved to 2-1 on Saturday with a 52-17 romp over Georgia Southern. They ran for 282 yards as a team, including 186 yards and two touchdowns by freshman Morgan Ellison, and they’ll also be bringing quarterback Richard Lagow, a big-armed senior who gave Ohio State some problems in the season opener.

It bears mentioning that Hoosiers also gave up 242 rushing yards to a winless opponent from the Sun Belt Conference. So there’s every reason to think that Barkley will find some running room as he looks to keep Penn State unbeaten and keep his Heisman campaign rolling along. It certainly was rolling at a pretty good clip at Iowa.

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