STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — College football seasons are 12 games, but it often feels like they’re really just two or three.
You have the biggest challenges, the marquee opponents, the moments of truth, and you find out where you are.
Iowa has a good team, a team that took the fight out of Minnesota, Indiana and Maryland in succession to join the national rankings and dare to dream of making a run toward the Big Ten championship game.
The math and probabilities of that are fodder for another day, when the dust of Iowa’s 30-24 loss at Penn State Saturday has settled a bit. In the rawness of this result, though, this one’s a stinger for the Hawkeyes just like their last-minute home-field loss to Wisconsin was.
Iowa closed October the same way it finished September, by not being quite good enough against a traditional Big Ten power. The what-could-have-beens will fly through Iowa like leaves in the November breezes.
Asked about the Hawkeyes’ failed trick play on a fourth-and-10 from their 42 with 37 seconds left in the first half, Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said “I think it just kind of got cloudy out there.”
It was cloudy all day.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley played like a dark cloud was over his head most of the game. You hate, hate, hate to single out unpaid college players. Stanley got plenty of laurels when he was throwing four touchdown passes at Minnesota and six at Indiana. You can’t tell the story of this game without giving him a dart for going 18-of-49, throwing a pair of brutal interceptions, and repeatedly overshooting receivers.
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Stanley has had some great days and will have more. Maybe next game be one. But there was a reason why a Pennsylvania reporter read Stanley’s stats out loud after the game, then added “and six wild pitches.”
The interception by Penn State’s Nick Scott on first-and-goal at the 3 with 3:18 left after Stanley had finally started throwing strikes on a 72-yard drive is more haunting than anything a Hawkeye fan will greet at the front door on Halloween.
The play had been changed, the play clock was about to elapse, and confusion was reigning. A throwaway or a timeout in that situation, and who knows what the story of this game might have been? Frustrated quarterback frustrates Nittany Lions in the clutch? Hawkeyes beat back mistakes and Penn State? Golden when it mattered most?
“I tried to rush it too much,” Stanley said. “I should have just taken a timeout.”
The truth is, this loss could have been lopsided. When your offense scores zero touchdowns, you’ve set yourself up for failure.
If defensive tackle Sam Brincks hadn’t made a superbly athletic catch of punter Colten Rastetter’s 10-yard touchdown pass on special teams trickery in the first quarter, this would have been worse. If Iowa hadn’t recovered all three of its fumbles, this could have been ugly.
Of course, if Stanley hadn’t badly overshot wide-wide-open T.J. Hockenson on a long second-quarter pass ...
“We lost by six and that’s seven points right there,” Stanley said.
He was very good on the Iowa fourth-quarter drive that went from the Hawkeyes’ 25 to the Lions’ 3. Tight end Noah Fant finally started getting the ball thrown his way. Mekhi Sargent had a terrific 20-yard rush. Stanley hit Sargent for 15 yards and Brandon Smith for 14 on a pair of third-and-10s.
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If only Stanley had called timeout on the first-and-goal after Smith’s catch and gotten everything settled down. It’s not an easy sport.
“If he’s on the field,” senior Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse said, “we’ve got a chance to win. That’s a fact I’ll believe until the end of my career.”
“He’s a really good football player,” Ferentz said. “Didn’t have his best game tonight. That was clear. Good players hit tough times sometimes. Good teams do. Good ones come back, and he will.”
Great players and teams win big road games against big-name opponents. Stanley and Iowa didn’t do that, so the Hawkeyes are back to being faces in the crowd until further notice.
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