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IOWA CITY — Never, never, have so many fans of a losing team sat in the Kinnick Stadium stands as long after a defeat as they did Saturday night in Kinnick Stadium.
Hawkeye fans were stunned, deflated and drained after the Penn State Nittany Lions scored on the last play of the game to escape with a 21-19 victory over Iowa.
With good reason. There has been many a wild ride in this funhouse over the years. This one, though, featured two teams full of individual magnificence, intestinal fortitude, and dueling two-minute offenses with efficiency their NFL older brothers would admire.
What Penn State running back Saquon Barkley did was otherworldly. His 40-touch, 304-yard body of work as a rusher and receiver will be broken into clips that will have football nuts doing deep dives on YouTube for a long time.
When Barkley leapt over Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson to extend a fourth-quarter 3rd-and-6 pass play into a 10-yard gain, you were reminded that ultimately, this is a players’ game.
Talk all you want about conditioning and culture. Give me a running back who can jump over a standing defensive back, who can constantly turn rushes destined to lose two yards into 8-yard gains. Give me Barkley.
However, the Nittany Lions won this thing because of what quarterback Trace McSorley did on the last drive, steering his team 12 plays for 80 yards in 102 seconds. That, too, was the stuff of greatness.
Then there were the Hawkeyes. If you didn’t know the score and saw only the statistics, you could come to just one conclusion. Iowa got embarrassed, just like last year at Penn State.
Except it didn’t. Nothing of the sort, in fact.
Yes, Iowa gave up 579 yards and gained but 273. Yes, the Lions had the ball for 99 plays to Iowa’s 45. Yet, as razy as it would seem if you only went by that stat sheet, the Hawkeyes’ defense had too many heroics to detail in this space.
Did it bend? Like a palm tree in a tropical storm. But did it break? Until that final drive, absolutely not.
Forced to work long hours because of an offense that got little going, Iowa’s defense was tormented by Barkley and his mates. But it somehow kept making plays at the most-vital times, kept making fourth-down stops or forcing field goal tries. It came up with the late first-half interception (linebacker Josey Jewell) that set up Iowa’s 1-play, 21-yard touchdown drive in the last minute of the first half.
Then, after it looked like this night would be an overall mess for the offense, there was Akrum Wadley tearing off long touchdown dashes on consecutive touches.
Wadley ran to nowhere for much of this game. His first 11 carries produced a total of minus-3 yards. But he caught a pass from Nate Stanley and went the Full Akrum with his lethal mix of jukes and breakaway speed. It was a 70-yard scoring play to pull Iowa within 15-13 with 10:02 left.
Again, the Hawkeyes’ defense was that tree in that storm as the Lions took the ball from its 12 to Iowa’s 13, but got nothing out of it thanks to defensive end Anthony Nelson blocking a field goal.
Then, Wadley again. A 35-yard lightning bolt of a touchdown run with 1:42 left for a 19-15 Iowa lead.
“I’m a huge soccer fan,” Iowa center James Daniels said. “You see Akrum, it’s like (Lionel) Messi, just dribbling through defenders.”
Messi is one of the relatively few athletes who has caused fans to make the kind of roar that was heard in Kinnick after Wadley’s go-ahead score.
But Penn State still had time. A lesser team — maybe all lesser teams — would have ended with nothing on that final possession but frustration. McSorley completed seven passes and had a 12-yard keeper. With zeros on the clock, Juwan Johnson clutched a perfect McSorley pass to a tight end zone window.
The game was a showstopper. Statistically, Penn State was better by miles. But in reality, it was better by one play.
“Our guys fought, simple as that,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s the beautiful thing about football. There’s a lot of ways to win games.
“We came up with some big plays at some critical times, some good responses, but just came up a little bit short, unfortunately.”
This is a good Iowa team. There will be more excitement to come, and quite a few happier endings.