IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa had practiced the play during the week and felt good about its chances, but also needed the right moment to strike. Penn State‘s relentless blitzing defense made the wait excruciating.
“I was thinking about it all game,” Hawkeyes wide receiver Nico Ragaini said. “I was hoping [offensive coordinator] Brian Ferentz would call it.”
After reaching Penn State territory on eight drives but finishing just one with a touchdown, Iowa took over at the Nittany Lions’ 44-yard line with 6:35 left, trailing 20-16. Quarterback Spencer Petras surveyed a defense that wasn’t showing blitz, and knew the time had come.
Petras ran play-action, rolled to his right and threw back across the field to Ragaini, who raced to the end zone for the go-ahead score, and Iowa held on for a 23-20 win. The third-ranked Hawkeyes rallied from a 17-3 deficit to beat No. 4 Penn State, which played the entire second half without starting quarterback Sean Clifford, who left in the second quarter with an undisclosed injury.
“It was something we were holding in our back pocket for an important time in the game,” Petras said. “We wanted to call it earlier. It’s just, those guys had a really great game plan. They were blitzing the hell out of us from every which way and making it tough for me to see stuff.
“But we got it called at the right time.”
The game proved to be a test of Iowa’s patience. Petras completed only one of his first nine pass attempts with an interception in the first quarter. Iowa’s defense added to its national lead with three first-half interceptions, but the offense converted the takeaways into only three points.
Playing before fans wearing T-shirts that read “Punting is winning” with a map of Australia, Iowa punter Tory Taylor — a native of Melbourne, Australia — pinned Penn State inside its own 20-yard line six times and averaged 44.2 yards per punt.
Iowa also took advantage of the limitations of sophomore quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson, who took over for the injured Clifford.
“It definitely changed more to a rushing offense for Penn State,” Hawkeyes defensive lineman Logan Lee said. “We expected them to continue to rush the ball. I think [Roberson] had seven passes on the season, so we were pretty comfortable just forcing him to continue to rush the ball and forcing third-and-long.”
But the offense’s inability to crack a talented and experienced PSU defense that has thrived in the red zone all season kept Iowa behind until the closing minutes.
“Sometimes you’ve just got to keep playing and hope something, somebody sparks you, or something good happens,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Teams that can do that, learn how to do that, have a chance to be successful.”
After a rough first quarter, Petras responded to complete 16-of-22 passes for 181 yards and two touchdowns in the final three quarters.
“The biggest thing there is patience, keeping a cool head,” Petras said.
Kinnick Stadium hosted its first AP top-five matchup since 1985, when No. 1 Iowa faced No. 2 Michigan. Ferentz credited Iowa fans for being readier than his team was for the game, and Hawkeyes supporters stormed the field afterward.
Star center Tyler Linderbaum joked that he “might have a slight concussion” from fans slapping him on the head, while adding, “Just kidding, don’t tell the trainers.”
“I think I was one of the last ones to get off, but I wouldn’t trade that feeling for the world being out there, high-fiving with fans,” safety Jack Koerner said. “I grew up a Hawk fan my whole life, going to Kinnick as a little kid. High-fiving little kids, screaming, ‘Go Hawks!’ about 150 times is a moment I’ll never forget.”
Iowa players and coaches finally made it to their locker room, where Ferentz became emotional as he spoke to the team.
“I got that gene from my old man,” said Ferentz, who choked up several times during his postgame news conference. “We’re all enjoying this. We enjoy each other and respect each other. It’s a pretty good deal. I don’t know how good a team we are at that point, but I know we’ve got a really good group of guys.”
Iowa’s signature defense struggled early but added four interceptions to its nation-leading total, which stands at 16 after the first six games. The Hawkeyes have 10 interceptions in their last two games, including two by both Koerner and defensive back Riley Moss, who left the game with an injury that Ferentz didn’t think will be serious.
“We’re not surprised,” said cornerback Matt Hankins, who had an interception and a key fourth-down stop in the win. “It’s the work we put in during the week, playing the zone defense, having eyes on the quarterback, seeing where the ball’s being thrown and being able to break on the ball.
“It’s just repetitive.”
Iowa has won 12 consecutive games, stretching back to 2020, and boasts its highest ranking since the 2015 season, when it last reached the Big Ten championship game. An undefeated Iowa team lost to Michigan State that year, missing out on its first College Football Playoff appearance.
“We know we have something special here,” Ragaini said.