STATE COLLEGE, Pa., — This was always going to be the hard part.
Road game, ranked opponent, an established record-setting quarterback and a roster stuffed with 43 Rivals-rated 4-star athletes, No. 16 Penn State was always going to be the toughest out for the 2018 Hawkeyes. Wisconsin is more of a backyard brawl thing. Penn State is a 100,000-seat blue blood.
We mentioned the 43 4-stars, right?
The part that stings is how close it was and the fact that Iowa had a chance to maybe win it.
Most games work out where there isn’t just one thing and blame can be shuffled into the general idea of the team. You can certainly argue the Hawkeyes’ 30-24 loss at Beaver Stadium on Saturday night had those moments.
Iowa’s collective loss of poise on first-and-goal from Penn State’s 3 with 3:18 left in the game and the Hawkeyes trailing by just 6 points certainly is one of the biggest moments of the season.
The play clock ran out on the Hawkeyes (6-2, 3-2 Big Ten). Quarterback Nate Stanley waited on a certain look from Penn State (6-2, 3-2). He changed the play late. Tight end Noah Fant wasn’t set. Center Keegan Render had doubts on whether or not he should even snap the ball.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz tried to get a timeout called from the sideline. Stanley threw blindly into no man’s land, and Penn State safety Nick Scott became the hero.
“That one was a floater,” Scott said. “It’s the easy ones you have to hold on tight to.”
Floater? Yes, floater.
So, the Hawkeyes now fall into limbo.
They’re not out of the Big Ten West Division hunt. At 3-2, the Hawkeyes are tied with Purdue and Wisconsin. They trail Northwestern, which is 5-1 in the West after it took care of Wisconsin 31-17 in Evanston, Ill.
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You can shake your fist at the heavens of missed opportunity. Or you can wash your Hawkeye gear and follow along for a finish that might have a 5 percent chance of ending up in Indianapolis.
“When I step back, I look at this team since January, they’ve been putting good days on top of each other,” Ferentz said. “We’ve had a leadership base really grow, I think we saw that on the field out there tonight.
“Nate didn’t have his best game, but he’s one of our strongest leaders. He’ll get back on his feet. I’m not worried at all. That’s part of football. Anytime you compete, you run the risk of getting beat. We got beat here two years ago in pretty bad fashion (41-14). We got back on our feet and played the next week (and beat No. 3 Michigan).
“That’s what the game is about. That’s the challenge of the game. When you have good people on your team, I don’t worry about that, I just worry about us doing the right things to make sure we do get back. We’ll be back. We’ll show up next Saturday.”
The Hawkeyes go into West Lafayette, Ind., next week to face Purdue (4-4, 3-2), which fell at Michigan State last weekend. After Purdue, the Hawkeyes end a two-game road trip with Northwestern.
You can see that Iowa can still have a say in its divisional fate. If a three-way tie included Wisconsin, that wouldn’t work for Iowa, but in the next two weeks, Iowa faces two Big Ten West teams that are still in the championship hunt.
Divisional play does keep things interesting. How realistic is this for Iowa?
This is where the quote from a player would say they’re totally invested and now there’s no margin for error. Everyone already knows that.
The bus is going to Purdue. They’ll be on it. Maybe you, too.
— It might be as simple as this with Stanley: When he’s under pressure, he relies on his arm to bail him out. He blows through the part about footwork and just aims with his arm, thus creating the inaccuracy.
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You heard him talk about footwork during the offseason. His poise melts, mechanics get forgotten and fatal mistakes happen.
That’s not an easy fix, but Stanley has shown composure and discipline in the pocket enough to make you believe it’s there.
Stanley did injure his thumb in the fourth quarter. He said in the postgame that he was fine.
— Time for Mekhi Sargent to get the majority of carries at running back. Ivory Kelly-Martin might have the skill set the staff wants, but he left Saturday’s game with an ankle injury. In football, availability can dictate whether or not you have a job. Toren Young remains a solid backup and totally capable of stepping in.
But Sargent made a case vs. Penn State. He had 91 yards on 16 carries. He also had a catch for 15 yards and was targeted three times. Credit Sargent for finding running lanes with a lot of traffic out there. PSU’s D-line wore out the Hawkeyes’ O-line. Lots of wrong footing (shooting gaps) and just different little tricks that helped the Lions win that battle.
— PSU quarterback Trace McSorley made the big play, a 51-yard TD run in the third quarter. It gave Penn State the lead for good.
Points matter against Penn State, a team that averaged 42.6 points per game going into Iowa. Iowa’s defense gave up 30 points and just 312 yards, PSU’s lowest output of the season.
The defense seems to have some real tempo with Amani Hooker at the safety/linebacker position and Geno Stone at strong safety. Either the coaches have reached that conclusion or linebacker Nick Niemann, the usual outside linebacker, still is having problems with his knee. He played only one snap at Penn State.
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