IOWA CITY, Iowa - It was about gaining enough yards to survive the crush.
No. 3 Iowa had defeated No. 4 Penn State, 23-20, on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium, on a day when the sold-out place swelled with the emotions that fluctuated between frustration, anger, pensiveness, and then sheer joy.
And so, when the vast majority of 69,250 fans poured out of the stands to celebrate as time ran out, the first concern of the Hawkeyes was how to get out of the maelstrom.
“It was scary for a second,” said quarterback Spencer Petras, whose 44-yard touchdown pass to Nico Ragaini with 6:26 to play provided the winning points. “(Tight end) Sam (LaPorta) said we have to get off the field real quick because we could get trampled.”
So, why not go back to that design in the playbook that always seems to work?
The quarterback sneak.
Actually, it was a reverse of what usually works. Fullback Monte Pottebaum, who always plows into the pile from the back end, led the way for his quarterback and others.
“He was in front pushing,” Petras said. “It was super fun. Super fun”
Yes, it was.
“We’re all enjoying this,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz.
The first top-five matchup for Iowa since the 1985 No. 1 vs. No. 2 game against Michigan had just enough of those work-of-art moments that can make these games historic.
“At some point, you have to step up and do something,” Ferentz said.
The masterpiece was the throw from Petras to Ragaini. It was a play that Petras said the Hawkeyes had “kept in the back pocket” until just the right time.
Penn State’s defense rattled Petras, and left the Hawkeyes searching the playbook for that one play.
“I don’t know if we played anybody that brought as much pressure as them,” Ferentz said.
They found it with one they had practiced during the week, when Ragaini said Petras had fired a 70-yard pass to him that was flawless.
“Everybody knows Spencer has a great arm,” Ragaini said. “Put the ball on the line, straight to me.”
The Nittany Lions had disrupted the Hawkeyes all day with blitzes, and this play would have been catastrophic had they done it again. Instead, Petras noticed in the pre-snap read that they weren’t coming.
Petras rolled right, and with Penn State’s defense cascading toward that side of the field, fired toward the other sideline, where Ragaini was waiting, wide-open. Ragaini raised toward the pylon and, as he was shoved from behind, reached out and got the ball across the goal line.
“That was a crazy good route,” Petras said.
“You hope they take the bait,” Ragaini said. “The guy took the bait, and Spencer made a great throw.”
The Hawkeyes had been shaky all day, but that one play was effectively smooth.
“It was just executed so well,” Ferentz said.
“Great call, great play design, and it came at the right time,” Petras said. “Not a moment too soon.”
Iowa (6-0 overall, 3-0 Big Ten) won its 12th consecutive game dating back to last season. The Hawkeyes were skittish, yet created similar disruption with the Nittany Lions (5-1, 2-1).
Quarterback Sean Clifford, who had bedeviled the Hawkeyes in the first two quarters with 146 passing yards and 36 rushing yards on three carries, was knocked out late in the first half when he was drilled by linebacker Jack Campbell on an incomplete third-down pass.
Backup Ta’Quon Roberson was then fed to the Kinnick chaos. His first five plays were a fumble that he recovered, an incomplete pass, and then three consecutive false-start penalties that were like shoveling coal on the fire surrounding him.
“It was a tough environment,” Roberson said.
That created an opening for the Hawkeyes, who got a 9-yard touchdown pass from Petras to Charlie Jones late in the first half to trail 17-10 at halftime.
Then, after Roberson led Penn State to a field goal in the third quarter, the Hawkeyes got two field goals from Caleb Shudak.
They would need one big play from the playbook. They found it, but they also had to rely on Petras, who missed on eight of his first nine passes but finished the game by completing 8-of-11 passes in the second half.
“We’ve had confidence in him, even when it was a little bumpy a year ago,” Ferentz said.
I have all the confidence in the world in him,” cornerback Matt Hankins said. “When it came down to it he made the plays and that’s what we needed. The first half was iffy for the whole team, but in the fourth quarter we came back and finished it off and that’s all we can do.”
Maybe it felt like an escape, but good teams find ways to extricate themselves on rocky days.
“We have a finishing mindset,” defensive lineman Logan Lee said.
Then, it was just a matter of getting out of the celebration.
“Just to be in the middle of that is kind of chaos,” Lee said. “But I won’t forget something like that.”
“This was, like, the biggest of the big-time,” Ragaini said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Ferentz wasn’t worried about getting out.
“I had good security,” he said.