By Marc Morehouse
(Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa fans rush the field Saturday at the end of the game after Daniel Murray’s kick beat Penn State, 24-23, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The win made the Hawkeyes eligible for a bowl game.
IOWA CITY — They can laugh about it now. At the time, they wanted to tear their eyeballs out.
With about 2 1/2 minutes left in the third quarter, the Hawkeyes had a first down at their 28-yard line and a world of possibilities ahead of them.
Wide receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos caught a TD pass from Ricky Stanzi that was thrown into Saturday’s monstrous 30 mph wind to pull Iowa within 16-14 against No. 3 Penn State. Iowa’s defense sent the Nittany Lions packing three-and-out on their next drive.
The Hawkeyes started at their 16. Two Shonn Greene runs took them to the 28.
First down and a world of possibilities ahead of them.
Then, of all things, the center-quarterback exchange goes kerploey. Penn State needed just four plays to cash in the fumble for a touchdown and a 23-14 lead with 29 seconds left in the third quarter.
They can laugh about it now.
“It’s great that we won the game,” center Rob Bruggeman said between nervous bursts of laughter. “I don’t quite feel off the hook. Obviously, that’s not something you want to happen.”
For the first time this season, the Hawkeyes overcame the critical error and punched through, 24-23 over then-No. 3 and now-No. 7 Penn State.
The Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-3 Big Ten) have lost their four games by 12 total points. Every loss brought a new level of frustration. Every loss threw an element at the Hawkeyes that they couldn’t overcome.
“We’ve gotten so close before, let’s finish it,” Stanzi told his teammates in the huddle. “Let’s just do it, especially now, we’ve got the chance. The ball’s in our hands.”
The Hawkeyes overcame two Stanzi fumbles and an interception. They overcame wide receiver Colin Sandeman’s roughing the kicker penalty — punter Jeremy Boone’s foot clipped Sandeman’s shoulder pad as he ran by — that cost Iowa a possession with 6:53 left in the fourth quarter, when the Hawkeyes trailed 23-21. They overcame first half statistics that screamed this game was No. 3 in the nation against a Big Ten also-ran.
Penn State had 18 first downs, ran 47 plays to just 15 for Iowa and held a massive advantage in time of possession, 23:34 to 6:26.
“It was long, it was long,” defensive tackle Mitch King said of the first half. “I know it was long.”
In the second half, the Hawkeyes’ offense executed. Fans grouse about that “executing” thing. It was Kirk Ferentz’s mantra all through a disappointing 2007 season. What’s wrong with Iowa’s offense? Ferentz would consistently counter with, “We need to execute.”
The final drive was the definition of execution.
On third-and-10 at the 50, PSU linebacker Navorro Bowman looped on a blitz and had a free run at Stanzi. Greene saw this and hustled from one side of the line of scrimmage to the other and met Bowman with a shot to the sternum.
Stanzi completed an 11-yarder to tight end Brandon Myers, who muscled two PSU defenders to earn the first down.
Yes, Greene had 117 yards and two TDs, but in the film room Sunday, this block might get more hoots and hollers out of his teammates.
“That’s the other part about Shonn. It’s easy to focus on his running, and why wouldn’t you?” Ferentz said. “But he’s blocked well and tough also. That’s why I say he’s a team leader right now. Players respect players who do their job and do it well.”
Then on second-and-10 from PSU’s 39, Stanzi stood in the pocket with defensive tackle Jared Odrick bearing down on him. Odrick, who tore Iowa’s O-line apart with two sacks, was close enough to smell Stanzi’s breath.
Stanzi, who completed 13 of 21 for 149 yards in the second half, delivered the 10-yard completion to Johnson-Koulianos as he was falling sideways. Johnson-Koulianos, who had just seven catches in the last four games, snared the ball while falling out of bounds at PSU’s 29. Johnson-Koulianos was the go-to receiver Saturday, finishing with seven catches for 89 yards.
“The ball came his way today and he did a great job with it,” Ferentz said. “He got called upon and he came through with great production. That’s what it takes to win.”
Then, on third-and-6 from PSU’s 25, one last little bit of execution between Stanzi and Johnson-Koulianos, a 10-yard completion to PSU’s 15. This was the play that brought a certain comfort level to Daniel Murray’s 31-yard field goal with 1 second left.
“The next step is (for Stanzi) to eliminate those turnovers,” Ferentz said. “To his credit, it doesn’t seem to bog him down. That’s two weeks in a row where he’s had some tough moments but comes back and fights in the fourth quarter. That’s a real credit to him.”
Here’s another thing fans wince at when it comes to Iowa football, the “bend don’t break” philosophy on defense.
That, as much as anything else, won the game for the Hawkeyes.
The Lions scored on all five of their trips inside Iowa’s 20, but managed just two TDs. In a game decided by one point, reserve defensive tackle Karl Klug’s tackle on Evan Royster for a 5-yard loss looks pretty big. After PSU drove 71 yard on 19 plays and drained 9:43 off the clock, all the Lions had to show for it was a field goal.
Linebacker A.J. Edds might be a little biased, but he believed the red zone defense spurred the turnaround.
“When they had the ball deep our territory, we kind of backed them up for tough field goals instead of what looked like easy touchdowns,” Edds said. “You could just feel the offense was starting to click a little bit and special teams was starting to play well, it just started to turn to our favor a little bit.”
Execution, “bend but don’t break,” you just have to have the guts to stick with these guys.
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(Cliff Jette/The Gazette)
Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi prepares to take the snap from Rob Bruggeman as Julian Vandervelde (53) reacts to being called for a false start against Penn State at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday.