Iowa Football

To climb high, Iowa football must ascend from Happy Valley

Historically, big Iowa seasons often include wins at Penn State

Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn runs with the ball on his way to a touchdown after blocking a punt during the second half of the Hawkeyes’ 21-10 win over Penn State in 2009 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (The Gazette)
Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn runs with the ball on his way to a touchdown after blocking a punt during the second half of the Hawkeyes’ 21-10 win over Penn State in 2009 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (The Gazette)

Twenty-five years ago, Penn State started playing football in the Big Ten and promptly began giving Iowa an inferiority complex.

The Hawkeyes welcomed the Nittany Lions to Iowa City in the third weekend of that 1993 season. The new kids on the block severely out-blocked and out-tackled their hosts and won, 31-0. Penn State had nine quarterback sacks and three interceptions. It was the first time a Hayden Fry-coached Iowa team was shut out at home, and it was Hayden Fry’s 15th season at that job.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Penn State Coach Joe Paterno said about the pink walls of the visitors’ locker room at Kinnick Stadium. “It kind of looks like a bordello. ... Now don’t go writing that I’ve been to a bordello.”

That wouldn’t have turned out to be the worst thing anyone ever said about him.

The next year in State College, Iowa fell behind 35-0 in the first quarter on its way to a 61-21 loss.

“I wonder what it’s like to be on the other side of the field,” Penn State tailback Ki-Jana Carter said. “I wonder what they are thinking.”

“Whose bright idea was it to invite you into our league?” may have been one of the thoughts.

But here we are a quarter-century after the Lions’ entrance into Big Ten football. Despite their advantages — unlike Penn State, there isn’t a Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh or Washington, D.C., within 160 miles of Iowa City — the Lions are 9-9 against Iowa since they came into the conference. They needed their current four-game win streak over the Hawkeyes to even things.

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Kirk Ferentz had been a rather ruthless rival of his home state until recently. His Iowa teams peeled off eight wins in nine games against PSU from 2000 to 2010.

Only two Big Ten teams have beaten Penn State more since it joined the Big Ten. If you guessed Michigan and Ohio State, send a copy of this column to the Penn State Berkey Creamery for six pints of Peachy Paterno. Also, include $58.

Outside of 2015 when the two teams didn’t meet, here is a rule of thumb: Special seasons for Ferentz-coached Iowa teams include a win in Happy Valley that put wind behind their sails.

The Hawkeyes shared the 2002 Big Ten title. They beat Penn State 42-35 in overtime at Beaver Stadium.

The Hawkeyes shared the 2004 Big Ten title. They beat Penn State 6-4 at Beaver Stadium.

The Hawkeyes went 11-2 and won the Orange Bowl in the 2009 season. They beat Penn State 21-10 at Beaver Stadium.

So ends today’s history lesson. In the present, Iowa plays at Penn State Saturday. Lo and behold, the Hawkeyes need to win for this to have a chance to be one of those special seasons.

Lose, and no matter what happens later you’ve been beaten by the two marquee teams on your regular-season schedule, Wisconsin and Penn State. (Although, I wonder if Iowa State may turn out to be the best of Iowa’s 12 foes. Check back in a month.)

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Win, and not only is an 11-1 season attainable, but so is a West Division title and other earthly delights that don’t often come Iowa’s way.

“Circumstances are different this time than those,” Ferentz said this week. “But the commonality is we have to play our best football Saturday to have a chance because it’s a tough environment and they’re a good football team. If you can do that, you’re going to feel good about yourself. That’s part of the climb if you’re going to be a team that has a really, really good season.”

This isn’t going to Minnesota or Indiana where the stands were half-empty 10 minutes before the start of Iowa’s games there and four-fifths empty in the game’s final few minutes. This is a six-figure crowd roaring against you from pregame warmups until the result has been decided.

This is an opponent with 4-star and 5-star recruits galore, players who won a Big Ten championship in 2016 and a Fiesta Bowl last season. It’s a program that hasn’t lost by more than 4 points in any of its last 30 games. Its quarterback, Trace McSorley, has 27 wins as a starter. He led an offense that gained 579 yards at Iowa a year ago.

That’s why Penn State is favored by a touchdown. But guess which of the two teams was the underdog by 9 points at Happy Valley in 2002, by 3 in 2004, and by 9 in 2009.

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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