One Big Ten East contender avoided a costly road upset on Saturday afternoon when No. 8 Michigan dominated Purdue 28-10 in West Lafayette. A few hours later, another one did the same thing. On a 4th-and-goal from the seven-yard line with four seconds remaining, senior quarterback Trace McSorley found junior wide receiver Juwan Johnson in the back of the end zone to lift No. 4 Penn State, 21-19, over Iowa at Kinnick Stadium.
The Nittany Lions’ Big Ten opener offered their first real challenge of the season, and they cleared it by refusing to quake under the pressure of a late-fourth quarter deficit in a hostile environment. Iowa came close to delivering a crushing blow to Penn State’s College Football Playoff case, but the Nittany Lions rode McSorley and some sensational running from junior tailback Saquon Barkley past one of the most daunting matchups on their conference schedule.
The Nittany Lions outplayed Iowa in the first half, racking up 4.7 yards per play to the Hawkeyes’ 2.2 and holding the ball nine minutes more than they did. But Penn State went into the break trailing 7-5 after two drives inside the Iowa 25-yard line yielded only three points, and the Hawkeyes capitalized on the short field created by a McSorley interception late in the second quarter with a 21-yard touchdown strike from sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley to junior wide receiver Nick Easley.
Though Iowa was probably lucky to pull ahead despite repeatedly going nowhere with the ball in its hands, its results on the other side of the line of scrimmage through two quarters were close to ideal. To knock off Penn State, Iowa needed to short-circuit a supercharged Nittany Lions attack anchored by the nation’s most dynamic backfield duo, McSorley and Barkley. At the half, the Hawkeyes had absorbed Penn State’s punches without bowing out, and taken advantage of a rare scoring opportunity.
Then Barkley happened. The junior broke through for runs of 25 and 16 yards on consecutive snaps on Penn State’s first series after the break, ripped off a 44-yard dash into Iowa territory that included a staggeringly nimble hesitation move by the sideline on the first play of the Nittany Lions’ next series, and finished the drive with an eight-yard run in which he received a pitch from McSorley, burst past the right edge of the line and and beat a group of defenders to the corner of the end zone.
All of which served as a prelude to his most remarkable feat of the night, a 10-yard reception in which he turned toward McSorley to haul in a screen pass, leapt clean over Iowa junior defensive back Josh Jackson, sustained a tackle mid-air, somehow landed on his feet and kept his balance, then kept chugging along to pick up a few more yards. It’ll go down in the official accounting as a first-down pickup in the fourth quarter, but the hurdle doubled as Barkley’s Heisman moment.
Barkley finished with 211 yards on 28 carries (7.5 YPC) and 358 total yards. The Nittany Lions needed every one of them. Iowa’s offense may have been stuck in mud most of the night, but it managed to grind Penn State into a low-scoring slog. Even with Barkley doing his best Superman impression, the Hawkeyes took a four-point lead with under two minutes remaining after they followed up a blocked field goal with a 35-yard touchdown scamper from Akrum Wadley, the senior tailback’s second long score of the night.
That’s when McSorley, Barkley and the rest of the Penn State offense marched 80 yards in 1:42 for the winner, a walk-off touchdown that silenced the 66,000 strong in Iowa City. The Nittany Lions have made it through only a third of their regular-season schedule, but this win keeps intact the buffer they’ll need to make the playoff if they stumble at some point during conference play. Penn State’s most trying stretch, against the undefeated Wolverines on Oct. 21 followed by at No. 10 Ohio State on Oct. 28, comes in about a month.
Those two games could decide who gets a spot in the Big Ten championship game, as well as one invitation to the national semifinals. Penn State is still in position to claim both, thanks to Barkley, McSorley and a big-game poise that paid off in a massive way in the waning seconds on Saturday. The Nittany Lions move forward having conquered a feisty league opponent. They’re undefeated, battle tested and ready for whatever else the East division throws at them.