STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — At this point, the highest attainable rung on the ladder is the Music City Bowl. And that’s still a maybe.
No. 12 Penn State (7-2, 5-1) did pretty much whatever it wanted during a first-half blitz that led to a 41-14 victory over Iowa (5-4, 3-3 Big Ten). Running back Saquon Barkley was as good as advertised, rushing for 167 yards that included a 57-yard TD run. Quarterback Trace McSorley might’ve been a little better than advertised, rolling up 221 yards of offense during a first half that stamped this game for the Nittany Lions quickly and definitively.
Barkley finished with 167 yards on just 20 carries and had a 44-yard TD reception. McSorley finished 11 of 18 for 240 yards, two TD passes and 280 total yards.
Sometime, we’ll unwind this and find out the last time Iowa gave up more than 599 yards of total offense. PSU took a loss on the game’s final play to fall under 600 yards. The Hawkeyes finished with 234 total yards.
For Iowa, this game was select all and delete.
When McSorley scored on a 1-yard run with 7:58 left in the first half — set up by a 43-yard pass to tight end Mike Gesicki — the Lions led 21-0 and had 285 total yards to just 52 for the Hawkeyes.
PSU came up with points in four of its six first-half possessions, including a 30-yard field goal that was blocked by linebacker Josey Jewell. Iowa countered with a failed fourth-down effort on a quick QB sneak, a four-and-out and a pair of three-and-outs before a 75-yard drive that was fueled by a 27-yard completion to wide receiver Jerminic Smith and a pair of successful screen plays to running backs.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard hit running back Akrum Wadley on a short screen and Wadley danced through the middle of PSU’s defense for a 12-yard TD.
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Iowa’s offense right now just feels as if it’s trying to prove a point, one that only head coach Kirk Ferentz knows.
Let’s rewind to the fourth down that Iowa failed to convert. The Hawkeyes had fourth-and-1 and went for that quick-snap sneak that has been successful the majority of the time. Give it that, it’s worked maybe 95 percent of the time. But it’s something Iowa’s opponents certainly know is coming.
This time, PSU linebacker Jason Cabinda knew what was coming. The 6-1, 232-pounder timed his move perfectly and met Beathard as he tried to leap and clear the pile.
Beathard was stunned and stumbled backward and eventually was tackled by Cabinda for a 1-yard loss. That play can stand for Iowa’s whole night before 106,194 fans at Beaver Stadium.
This was “QB sneak and a helmet in the face and a stumble backward and a loss” night for Iowa’s offense, something that feels much too familiar this season.
Coming out of the bye week, Iowa did show a few wrinkles on offense. Wadley lined up in the slot and ran a few jet sweeps. Points for being interesting, but even the fake sweep action didn’t merit a raised eyebrow from the Lions defense.
So, that was different. Effective? Not really. Beathard did look for Smith more this week than he has and that did provide an explosive play. One explosive play in the face of four 40-plus yard plays for PSU, two of which went for TDs.
But really, the whole Iowa mentality of doing what it does on offense and playing the game of wills isn’t working this season and it’s simply painful to watch. It’s rubbed off a lot of the goodwill from last year’s Big Ten West Division title and has Hawkeyes fans’ hands being flung in the air all over the place.
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Case in point on the offensive futility, on a second-and-7 in the second half, PSU linebacker Brandon Bell watched Iowa break its huddle. He then pointed to the spot where he thought the play was going to go. The play went there and it went nowhere, with a host of PSU defenders stopping running back LeShun Daniels for a 3-yard loss.
The earwax frosting on the roadkill cake was the Iowa defense’s collapse. Granted, Penn State does have the best running back in the Big Ten. A great group of wide receivers and tight ends also gives the Lions excellent balance.
Iowa didn’t have an answer for any of it. Case in point, Iowa jumped into a raider package on a third-and-5 from the Hawkeyes’ 43. McSorley saw that and changed the play to a run. He handed to Barkley, Iowa failed to set an edge, Barkley ran through a tackle attempt by free safety and it ended up a 57-yard TD run.
The raider leaves Iowa outnumbered on the line of scrimmage. It’s a borderline call on a third-and-5. It’s reaching for something on a third-and-5 against the Big Ten’s best running back and one Iowa hadn’t stopped to that point or all night.
Hey, at least someone Iowa reached for something Saturday night. It’s better than an opposing linebacker pointing to where your offense is going and then your offense goes there. Or having the tried-and-true and totally obvious QB quick sneak met with a linebacker’s helmet.
So many “cases in point” that illustrate an average football team that is now officially out of the Big Ten West Division race. There’s a highest rung still out there for the Hawkeyes, it’s just not going to be one that anyone remembers.
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