116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Yes, Hawkeyes fans, that 23-20 win over then-No. 4 Penn State really did happen. It wasn’t just a dream.
Here’s a breakdown of a few key aspects of the game after reviewing the film:
It was first-and-10. Iowa had the ball on the opposing 43-yard-line. Penn State was clinging to a 20-16 lead with 6:35 left in the game. At this point, Iowa had just two 20-plus-yard plays on offense.
The Hawkeyes lined up in the singleback formation with two tight ends. Quarterback Spencer Petras rolled to his right after a play-action fake to running back Tyler Goodson.
After three-plus quarters of seeing Penn State heavily pressure Petras, the junior quarterback finally had time to let something develop farther downfield.
Petras specifically noted in his postgame news conference that Iowa had this play in its “back pocket,” but Penn State’s frequent blitzing kept the Hawkeyes from calling it earlier.
Wide receiver Keagan Johnson, who was lined up in the left flank and was on the receiving end of a 42-yard catch on the previous drive, ran to the right and brought his defender with him.
That, along with Petras’ rollout, left a large swath of open area on the left side.
Nico Ragaini lined up in the left slot and started going on a cross route to the right — the same direction Petras was going. He then hooked back left and deep to the open area on the left side.
“That was a crazy-good route,” Petras said.
By the time Penn State’s Ji’Ayir Brown, the deep safety in the middle of the field, noticed the misdirection, he had no chance of catching up with Ragaini.
Petras then heaved a throw across the field to hit the open Ragaini.
Penn State linebacker Curtis Jacobs, who was about 5 to 10 yards behind Ragaini, tried tackling from behind, but Jacobs instead ended up giving him a push into the end zone.
Already leading 17-10 at the time, Penn State had a chance to expand its lead to 24-10 in the third quarter. Penn State had the ball at about the 15-yard-line on third-and-6.
The Nittany Lions were moving quickly on offense, averaging a snap every 15.1 seconds on the first 10 plays of the drive.
That 10th play was going to determine whether Penn State could take a 24-10 or 20-10 lead.
Penn State lined up in the shotgun formation. Iowa, which usually does not aggressively blitz quarterbacks, blitzed safety Jack Koerner and linebacker Jack Campbell along with the four linemen.
The double-A-gap blitz overwhelmed the Penn State offensive line. Within two seconds of the snap, there were four Tigerhawk-emblazoned helmets between backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson and his offensive line.
Roberson tried to extend the play with a scramble, but defensive lineman Deontae Craig quickly brought him to the ground.
What could’ve been a touchdown drive for Penn State instead turned into a field goal.
Iowa’s defense, pre-Clifford injury and post-Clifford injury
Iowa stuck to its defensive scheme against Penn State starting quarterback Sean Clifford.
It prevented big plays. It forced turnovers.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker said last week the goal each week is to have at least three turnovers or turnover-like plays, such as a fourth-down stop.
He also wants the defense to give up “no more than two explosive plays.” He defines “explosive” as going for at least 25 yards.
Clifford played a little more than one quarter before exiting the game with an injury. In that shortened time, he tossed two interceptions. At that rate, he would’ve had about four if he could play a full game.
Parker can check the turnover box.
Big plays? Clifford had one.
He threw to a wide-open KeAndre Lambert-Smith downfield late in the first quarter. Lambert-Smith then ran it another 10 yards before Iowa cornerback Riley Moss tripped him up.
The 30-yard gain was instrumental in the four-play, 39-yard Penn State touchdown drive, so one can see why the Hawkeyes dread giving up big plays so much.
One big play in almost one half on Saturday gives the Hawkeyes a chance to still hit their goal in the second half. Clifford could’ve definitely had a few more big plays, though, with more time. Maybe give that box a partial checkmark.
Clifford adapted to what Iowa’s defense shut down and what it gave him, though. Ninety-two percent of his pass attempts and about 93 percent of his completions were for fewer than 20 yards.
After throwing an interception on his first play trying to avoid a safety, Clifford and the Nittany Lions scored on three of their next four drives.
Penn State scored on just one of its 11 drives when Roberson was under center and had to rely more on a running game that gained little traction against Iowa’s defense.
Had Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell’s big hit on Clifford not sidelined the quarterback for the rest of the day, the second half could have gone a lot differently.
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