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Iowa's Triumph Over Penn State Was Vintage Kirk Ferentz Football

The longtime Hawkeyes coach is the guru of fundamental football, and this 2021 team has been as good as any at executing that.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — When they build the Kirk Ferentz Museum of Fundamental Football here—in a drab but sensible building, at the corner of Straight and Narrow—they should devote an entire wing to Iowa’s 23–20 victory over Penn State Saturday. This was a Louvre-quality exhibition of every basic building block that has made Ferentz a Hall of Fame coach.

A display on field position is mandatory. Put Tory Taylor’s five punts that pinned the Nittany Lions inside their own 15-yard line—three inside the five—on an endless video loop. Taylor has an NIL deal for shirts that read, “punting is winning,” and boy did the Australian choose the right program for launching that clothing line. The student section was chanting “MVP” at the punter during this game, and let’s just say you don’t hear that on a fall Saturday anywhere but here.

In an era where coaches often feel compelled to go for fourth downs on opponents’ side of midfield, Ferentz sets his square jaw and sends out the kicking team. Over and over. He’s been doing this for 23 years now, and it keeps working, so he keeps doing it. Then he watches his punter lob sand wedges into the sky that his gunners will cover, and the opposition will be stuck in a hole.

Iowa's defense swarms PSU's Jahan Dotson

There must also be a display on ball security. You can put this quote from Ferentz on the wall in gold lettering: “I’m a bad stat guy and I always have been, because I really don’t care too much about them. Except turnovers, takeaways.” Iowa is the ball-hawkingest team in America, taking it away from Penn State four times Saturday and raising its season total to 20. The Hawkeyes now have 16 interceptions in six games, by far the most in the nation. They are plus-15 overall in turnover margin, a massive advantage in the statistical category that most directly impacts winning and losing.

Penn State’s first play of the game was a pass, and Iowa intercepted it to set up a field goal. Penn State’s third drive of the game ended on an Iowa interception of a deep ball in the end zone. A third Penn State possession of the first half ended in a pick. And then the Hawkeyes iced the game with a fourth interception in the final minutes. Cornerback Matt Hankins, who had that last pick, said the secondary is calling itself the “Dough Boys.” Why? “The ball is the money.”

Devote plenty of museum space to the virtues of defense as well. When Iowa isn’t taking the ball away, it is simply stuffing opposing offenses. Penn State’s 20 points are the most the Hawkeyes have allowed in a game this season. They came into Saturday second in the nation in scoring D at 11.6 points per game. They surrendered just 287 total yards, the Nittany Lions’ fewest in a game since November 2019. “Nobody really cares about defense these days,” Ferentz said, sounding every bit of his 66 years of age. “… If you’re playing defense, you’ve got a shot. I don’t care what sport it is.”

It was a defensive play that turned this game around, a hit by linebacker Jack Campbell on Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford early in the second quarter. (“Good clean hit, good aggressive play,” Ferentz noted.) Armed with a pass-intensive game plan, Clifford led the Nittany Lions on three scoring drives in their first five possessions, staking them to a 17–3 lead. But the last of those drives ended with Clifford getting up gingerly after that hit, going to the locker room for evaluation and never returning to action.

At that point, Penn State had thrown for 146 yards and Clifford had run three times for 36 yards and a touchdown. Without him, the Lions’ offense melted down completely under backup QB Ta’Quan Roberson. It was a horror show. Roberson threw for just 34 yards on 21 attempts, and Penn State scored just three points on its final 10 possessions.

Save some space in the museum for penalties. Iowa is on its way to a 14th straight season of drawing fewer flags on itself than on its opponents. Saturday, Penn State’s collective nervous breakdown after Roberson took over at quarterback led to eight false start penalties. Credit the berserk Kinnick Stadium crowd for increasing the pressure that offense was clearly feeling. “That’s the loudest noise I’ve ever heard in my life,” said Iowa defensive tackle Logan Lee.

While those false starts are only five-yard penalties, they continually put the Lions behind the chains and that mattered given the challenges faced after Clifford exited the game. In every possession in which Penn State committed a false start, the drive ended without points. Iowa, meanwhile, had just three penalties for 27 yards until Hankins was called for unsportsmanlike conduct after celebrating his game-sealing interception.

And leave some room on a wall for an exhibit honoring the running game. Ferentz believes in the power of the handoff, even as game turns more toward passing. He believes in handoffs when they are unproductive for long stretches of time—as they were Saturday. Tyler Goodson got a season-high 25 carries that only went for 88 yards, but Iowa’s eternal commitment to the run made Penn State commit to stopping it. And that opened up the pass play that won the game for the Hawkeyes.

Iowa scores the game-winning TD vs. Penn State

Trailing 20–16, Iowa’s patient adherence to field-position football led to a Penn State punt that was caught on the Nittany Lions’ 43-yard line. On first down, quarterback Spencer Petras faked a handoff to Goodson, which sucked in the underneath layer of the defense. As Petras rolled right, receiver Nico Ragaini released out of the slot and broke his route sharply to the left sideline. Petras pulled up and delivered a strike, and Ragaini dove for the pylon for the touchdown.

“We worked on it all week,” Petras said. “We kept it in the back pocket for a big moment. We got it called at the right time.”

Put all that stuff in the Penn State 2021 Wing of the Ferentz Museum of Fundamental Football. And copy the lighted words that are in the tunnel outside the Hawkeyes locker room: “Tough” on one wall and “Smart” on the other. Building-block stuff.

Now here’s what you won’t see in the museum, but it’s a factor in just about every special season a team has ever had: luck. If Clifford doesn’t get injured, it’s highly likely that Iowa loses this game—and perhaps loses it handily. But a team can make its own luck, and putting hard hits on the opposing quarterback is part of that.

Still: Petras is functional, not great. He started this game completing one of his first nine passes. If Iowa gets into a game where its opponent can actually score, it will have trouble matching points. It may be a while before that happens—like the regular-season finale against Nebraska, or the Big Ten championship game—but it will happen eventually.

This Iowa team looks a fair amount like the 2015 team, a low-frills/low-thrills bunch that somehow navigated through the regular season 12–0 before losing a dramatic Big Ten title game to Michigan State. Those Hawkeyes weren’t exposed until they arrived at the Rose Bowl and were obliterated by Stanford and Christian McCaffrey, 45–16, in a game that was not as close as the score.

Could this team get that far by simply excelling at the old-school basics? Maybe. And there could be a similar comeuppance if it does. But for now, the Hawkeyes are perfectly content to excel at the basics while their opponents self destruct. Ferentz, guru of fundamental football, is having a blast getting the most out of what he’s got—like the word “Iowa” itself, which gets three syllables out of four letters.

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