Penn State appeared ready for its playoff moment, having taken a 17-3 lead over Iowa despite two turnovers and an injury to starting defensive tackle PJ Mustipher. Then quarterback Sean Clifford walked to the locker room in the second quarter.
No. 3 Iowa labored over the comeback but ultimately defeated No. 4 Penn State 23-20 to continue its playoff dream. Quarterback Spencer Petras hit Nico Ragaini for a 44-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter, the big play for which Iowa had been searching the entire second half.
Iowa (6-0) extended its winning streak to 12 games, while Penn State's ended at nine. Meanwhile, Penn State (5-1) gets a week off to sort out its injury situation before hosting Illinois on Oct. 23.
"We were blessed to start the season 5-0," Penn State defensive end Jesse Luketa said on the school's postgame radio show with Steve Jones and Jack Ham. "We lost a tough one, a very close one. There’s plenty of football left to be played and we’re excited. We’re going to get back to work. We’re not done."
Here's how it happened.
Penn State's offense struggles without Clifford
Two days before hoping to turn his starting quarterback loose against Iowa, Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich explained how he has been nurturing No. 2 quarterback Ta'Quan Roberson.
"We try to put him in situations throughout the week where we challenge them," Yurcich said. "We've been doing that for a while now. And boy, I am excited for what's in his future."
Roberson's future arrived early Saturday, as he was thrust into action against an Iowa defense ranked No. 2 in the nation. It was a difficult introduction.
Clifford went to the locker room midway through the second quarter and spent the second half on the sideline in street clothes. Penn State did not disclose whether Clifford was injured, though he did take a big hit from Iowa linebacker Jack Campbell on a second-quarter incompletion.
Clifford led Penn State to three scoring drives and a 17-10 lead before leaving the field with 7:08 remaining in the half. He was 15 for 25 for 146 yards and had rushed three times for 36 yards before leaving the game.
Clifford converted two third downs rushing and scored on a 4-yard run that gave the Lions a 17-3 lead. Clifford also threw two interceptions, including one on his first pass of the game.
Penn State's offense immediately struggled under Roberson, who fumbled his first snap, threw an incompletion and then was subjected to three consecutive false starts because of crowd noise and snap issues. Penn State was forced to punt from its own end zone on 4th and 26, and Iowa's defense and crowd took charge from there.
The Lions ultimately committed eight false-start penalties (seven with Roberson at quarterback) as they were unable to time the snap properly. A chop block on an offensive possession was part of a season-high 10 penalties for Penn State.
On his second series, Roberson was intercepted attempting a deep throw to Jahan Dotson. Iowa's Riley Moss made the interception but limped off the field after the play. He went to the locker room before halftime as well.
Penn State had injury issues across the first half against Iowa. The Lions lost two defensive tackles, including starter PJ Mustipher, and had several other players get up slowly.
Roberson, a redshirt sophomore, has played little at Penn State. He was 4-for-7 passing this season entering Saturday's game and had attempted just one pass the previous two years. This was a grueling way to get his most meaningful action.
Roberson began five of his 11 drives inside his own 15-yard line and two inside the 5, mostly because of Iowa punter Tory Taylor, who put six inside the 20-yard line. Roberson went 7 for 20 passing for 34 yards and ended the game with six consecutive incompletions.
Penn State totaled 208 yards of offense under Clifford and 79 under Roberson. The Lions finished with a season-low 287 yards.
This was a costly game for Penn State, which lost its starting quarterback, starting defensive tackle (PJ Mustipher) and a rotation running back in John Lovett, who was not in uniform for the second half.
Fortunately for the Lions, they have a week off before hosting Illinois on Oct. 23. Penn State also has three weeks before visiting Ohio State on Oct. 30.
Defense runs out of gas
Penn State's defense held Iowa to punts on the three consecutive possessions after Roberson entered but could not maintain that pace. Iowa scored 10 fourth-quarter points on short fields, 'punctuated by Ragaini's touchdown.
Penn State lost coverage on the play and uncharacteristically missed a few tackles on later series.
Still, Penn State's defense was exceptional, making 10 tackles for loss and an interception. Linebacker Ellis Brooks played one of his better games, with 14 tackles, and Brisker was phenomenal: nine tackles and the interception.
Iowa rolls up the turnovers again
Iowa entered the game having forced 16 turnovers, the most in the nation, and added an astonishing three more. The Hawkeyes made four interceptions (two against each quarterback) to reach 16 for the year.
Iowa's defense was so surly, and its special teams so strong, that coach Kirk Ferentz had his offense take a knee and punt late in the fourth quarter, giving Penn State the ball at its 8-yard line with 39 seconds left and no timeouts.
The key moment
Penn State was called for a chop block in the fourth quarter that would have led to a fourth-and-long. Instead, Ferentz accepted the penalty, setting up a 3rd and 24. Penn State responded with a false start that forced it back to the 6-yard line. That bit of field-position play set up the game-winning touchdown.