Iowa Football

Penn State is The Game for Iowa football at Kinnick this year

If 2019 magic is to be made here, this is the time

Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) upends Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) during the Hawkeyes' 21-19 loss to the Nittany Lions at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 23, 2017. (The Gazette)
Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa (94) upends Penn State running back Saquon Barkley (26) during the Hawkeyes' 21-19 loss to the Nittany Lions at Iowa's Kinnick Stadium on Sept. 23, 2017. (The Gazette)

Which would you rather have as a fan, championships or big moments?

Championships. No hesitation, no doubt, no argument. Right? Winning is the point. Your team is in a conference and a division to compete for titles.

Yet, which produced the most enduring euphoria for Iowa football fans, the Big Ten West championship run of 2015, or single games at Kinnick Stadium for the 2016 and 2017 teams that went on to the Outback and Pinstripe bowls, respectively?

You know which games from ’16 and ’17 are being referenced here. Because of them, Hawkeye fans were still floating on the following Monday morning when they returned to work or school.

Three years ago, it was masterful defense, great second-half running by Akrum Wadley, Keith Duncan delivering on a last-second 33-yard field goal, and a crowd storm as the Hawkeyes pulled out a 14-13 win over a 9-0 Michigan team.

The following season, it was everything including the kitchen sink against third-ranked Ohio State. It was an Amani Hooker pick-6 on the game’s first play from scrimmage. It was Nate Stanley throwing one of his five touchdown passes with Buckeye defensive end Sam Hubbard draped around his legs. It was Josh Jackson intercepting three OSU passes, including a one-hand stab inside the Iowa 5.

It was 55-24, it blasted the Big Ten out of the College Football Playoff, and it ranks as the favorite all-time game for many Hawkeye fans.

Contrast that to 2015, when Iowa went 8-0 in the Big Ten and 12-0 in the regular season, but there wasn’t a magical game that compares to those two. The Marshall Koehn 57-yard, walk-off field goal that beat Pittsburgh certainly was memorable, but it didn’t have the history of Iowa typically being a supporting actor in the same conference as the team it beat.

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Now, had the Hawkeyes held off Michigan State in the fang-and-claw league championship game they staged in Indianapolis that year ...

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The point is, you’ve been a little spoiled around here despite not being in the league’s championship picture since 2015. Few fan bases have had as many sublime days/nights in their own stadium as recently as Iowa’s, or even any. Moments to cling to, to savor, to know precisely where you were when they happened or how you felt at the time.

Somewhat insanely, there nearly was a third. It was in September 2017 against Saturday’s opponent, Penn State. The two teams were 3-0. The Nittany Lions were ranked fourth. It was a night game. It had all the atmosphere you could want.

Penn State’s offense, with quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley, pushed Iowa around all night. It gained 579 yards to Iowa’s 273. Barkley had 305 total yards in one of the greatest individual performances Kinnick has ever seen. However, the Lions couldn’t maximize most scoring opportunities.

Trailing 15-7 going into the fourth quarter, Iowa scored a pair of touchdowns. Wadley had a 70-yard catch-and-run for one and a 35-yard rush for the other. The second came with 1:42 left for a 19-15 lead.

But Penn State responded with an 80-yard, 12-play drive that ended on a McSorley 7-yard touchdown pass with no time remaining. Great game, and you had to tip your hat to the visitors.

Can Saturday night’s game against unbeaten, No. 10 Penn State become another Kinnick classic? The odds are against it, even if Iowa wins. Yet, we’ve become conditioned to special and captivating things in big games here, whether the Hawkeyes win or lose. Why not one more?

This is The Game on Iowa’s home schedule. The first three were afterthoughts, bores. The patches of empty seats at the Rutgers and Middle Tennessee games said so.

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Purdue and Illinois coming here excites no one. Maybe Minnesota keeps winning. Maybe it beats Nebraska in Minneapolis Saturday, mows past Rutgers and Maryland, then upsets Penn State in Minnesota on Nov. 9 to bring a 9-0 record to Iowa the following Saturday. That’s a lot of maybes.

So this Penn State game is the Kinnick headliner for 2019, an unbeaten opponent with a reputation for football excellence in a night game on ABC. This is one of those moments here again, a potential big one.

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

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