116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Nico Ragaini’s uncle was in a daze in a Kinnick Stadium concourse early Saturday night.
“If you ask me something,” Paul Ragaini said amid a postgame crowd noise unlike few Kinnick Stadium has produced, “I won’t know what to say.”
But he was asked the million-dollar question, anyhow. What was it like to see your nephew so open on the pass that led to a crowd roar that may have loosened a few of the old brick house’s moorings?
“I jumped out of my seat,” he said. “I watch nothing but Nico. I see the same thing he sees. I was the only person in the stadium who was looking out and seeing nothing but space around him.”
It was 44 yards, junior quarterback Spencer Petras of California to senior wide receiver Ragaini of Connecticut. Midway between their two home states on a patch of turf in Eastern Iowa, the two connected and sent Hawkeye fans into orbit with 6:26 left in Iowa’s football game against Penn State.
No. 3 Iowa had a 23-20 lead that held to the end, thanks to defense that wouldn’t let No. 4 Penn State’s No. 2 quarterback, Ta’Quan Roberson. breathe. That, combined with over 69,000 screamers in the crowd, made it nearly impossible for Roberson and his offensive linemen to do something as elementary as snap the ball without committing a false start.
That’s no joke. The Nittany Lions had eight — eight! — false start infractions after Roberson entered the game late in the first half following the ribs injury Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell cleanly inflicted on starting QB Sean Clifford.
How much of the linemen moving too soon was due to the Hawkeyes’ omnipresent defensive heat, and how much was caused by fans who came to give it the old 110 percent?
“I think credit should be shared there,” Iowa defensive tackle Logan Lee said, “but definitely, the fans made a really, really big difference.”
“We knew they’d be ready to go at the start,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said, “and they were more ready than we were. We just wanted to make sure our team knew that they can’t play the game for us.”
Well, the reason those fans kept the faith for four quarters is because their team did likewise. The fans’ payoff was Petras’ big pass to Ragaini. That ended a game-long slog that felt uphill all the way, and put the Hawkeyes in front, and in the comfortable place of letting the defense bring it home.
Petras was 1-of-9 passing in the first quarter for 14 yards, with one interception. His quarterback rating at the end of the quarter was 1.96. You get more than 2 for spelling your name correctly.
Iowa trailed 14-3 after the quarter, its first double-digit deficit in 18 games. This didn’t look good. No, this didn’t look good whatsoever, and it looked worse when it was 17-3.
But Campbell clocked Clifford, who walked gingerly to his sideline’s medical tent, then went to street clothes for the second half. He had been doing a beautiful job to that point, even with two interceptions. He put up two touchdowns, a herculean task this day with these two defenses.
Iowa proceeded to go on a 75-yard touchdown drive to make it 17-10 and have its fans all fired up when Roberson entered. The sophomore had thrown seven passes all season, eight in his career. Iowa’s defenders were made aware of that by their coaches at halftime. But those defenders had already gotten into Roberson’s head, and the heads of his blockers.
This was no time or place for a newbie QB. Before even reaching halftime, here’s how the first five snaps or near-snaps went for Roberson. Near-lost fumble. Near-interception. False start, false start, false start.
Roberson got Penn State close enough to the end zone for three third-quarter points and a 20-10 lead. Iowa’s offense was going to have to win this game, somehow. Right?
It didn’t look promising for a long time.
Two field goals by Caleb Shudak — one of Iowa’s bevy of sensational special-teams performers — made it 20-16 with 8:08 left. The Hawkeyes still needed a touchdown, and a continuation of its misery-making for Roberson and company kept Iowa within a touchdown of the lead.
So the Lions faced fourth-and-29 from their 6 on their next possession. They punted to their 44.
One play. Ragaini was as open as the mouth of his uncle who watched in part nervousness, part excitement, part disbelief. Nothing but space, Paul Ragaini saw. Nothing but space, Nico Ragaini saw. Nothing but space, Petras would see.
A Petras play-fake to running back Tyler Goodson on the left. A roll to the right. Ragaini slowed up at midfield then shot toward the left sideline, with no Lion within eight yards of him. Petras put the ball into Ragaini’s hands for the receiver’s first touchdown catch in almost two years.
“Don’t really have a name for it,” Ragaini said about the play, but it definitely was one the team had rehearsed. He said Petras hit him on a 70-yarder in practice during the week on the same route.
“Which was pretty wild,” said Ragaini. “He put the ball on the line straight to me.”
This was a mere 44 yards, and the last 17 of it was Ragaini running. PSU linebacker Curtis Jacobs hit Ragaini at the 4, and the momentum rocketed him into an end zone pylon for the touchdown.
That was followed by FOX announcer Gus Johnson screaming like only he can, and the Kinnick crowd screaming like little if anything else you’ve ever heard in person.
“Yeah, this was like the biggest of big-time,” Ragaini said, “which was pretty awesome.
“I mean, honestly today, like sitting on the sideline I was so emotionally drained and just screaming for the defense so much, like I truly almost teared up a little bit out there because we all care about each other so much.
“That’s the beauty of our team. I think we all really want each other to succeed and we all trust each other so much.”
Trust in Petras may have been a lot less in the stands and in TV Land than it was on Iowa’s sideline. But the quarterback once again didn’t buckle. When the Hawkeyes needed a throw, the throw, he saw it and floated it right into Ragaini’s able hands.
“Heck of a route,” Petras said about Ragaini’s handiwork. “Perfect call,” he said about offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s decision-making.
“It was a huge play.”
About the game, Petras said “Nothing about it was easy.”
Easy? How could this be easy? You can’t be Iowa in a top-5 football matchup and go sailing on a Saturday afternoon. That’s not how it works here.
This had to make you fret and sweat and fret a lot more. It had to be hard. You couldn’t have the indelible clutch moments, the mental snapshots that will endure for years, nay, decades, if things were breezy.
The snapshots were taken and will endure. Defense, defense, defense. Field-goal kicking, punting and punt coverage that was impeccable. And, Petras-to-Ragaini, joining Banks-to-Clark, Tate-to-Holloway, Stanzi-to-McNutt and Beathard-to-Smith as all-time passes of importance in the Ferentz era.
It was as clutch as clutch can be.
Iowa found a way to stay in the Top 3 and set itself up for a run at a 12-0 regular season. That’s something you don’t have to explain. You did it, everybody who cares about college football saw it or heard about it or watched the highlights, and it’s worth a thousand traveling trophies.
Frettin’ and sweatin’. And finally, a crowd storm. The fans covered the field like Iowa’s defense covered the Nittanies.
Oh, that noise. That sound emanating from Kinnick Stadium probably bounced off every oak in Lone Tree, scared the cattle outside Holstein, loosened lug nuts in Mechanicsville.
This was 69,000 fans repeatedly emptying their lungs for over three hours because their team kept pushing against a ferocious foe.
The Hawkeyes, somehow, refused to leave the national discussion. Not that any of their fans had any voice left for it Saturday night.
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