From the second the clock hit triple zeros at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames on September 11th, and Iowa cinched up it’s 6th win in a row against the Cyclones, I knew that the Penn State game on October 9th had a chance to be special. I felt confident that Iowa would hold their end of the bargain, and it was merely matter if Penn State could get by Auburn the following Saturday. The Nittany Lions did, and the collision course of biblical proportions was set.
I bought my ticket for Saturday’s game the Sunday following the Cy-Hawk game for $50 from a friend. To be fair to her, I don’t think many students had the foresight to see what Saturday’s game had a chance to become. But, Iowa held up their end of the bargain, as did Penn State, officially cementing the biggest football game in the state of Iowa since #1 Iowa defeated #2 Michigan on October 19th, 1985.
This past entire week, I tried to eat up as much content as I could about the upcoming game, no matter the outlet: ESPN, FOX Sports, 247 Sports, Des Moines Register, Cedar Rapids Gazette, it didn’t matter. I was going to ingest as much as I could, leading up to an all-time showdown between #3 and #4. When Colin Cowherd and Joel Klatt raved for Kinnick Stadium and Iowa City for 2 whole minutes (that’s pretty long on television), I don’t think I could’ve enjoyed it more as an alum of the University of Iowa.
Once I finished work on Friday night, I hopped in my car and drove the two-and-a-half hours from Eagle Grove to Iowa City and settled in around 12:15 in the morning. My friend’s two-bedroom house on Rider Street was hosting 4 extra tennants on Friday night, with out-of-town friends wanting to experience a certainly-historic Saturday in Iowa City.
By 8:45 on Saturday morning, Bloody Mary’s had been made, other beverages had been cracked, it was time to prepare for the biggest gameday Iowa City had held in 36 years, only 10 days away from the exact date of the 1985 game.
We tailgated in the lot west of Kinnick Stadium, and for the most part, the atmosphere immediately surrounding our tailgate felt rather subdued, for a matchup of #3 and #4. Then again, I did not attend Big Noon Kickoff or walk up and down Melrose prior to the game. As the morning transitioned into the afternoon, the atmosphere did begin to perk up, slowly but surely.
We foolishly decided we would be okay to get in the stadium around 2:30 and get a good spot…what a pipe dream that was. Stationed 3 rows from the top of the student section in the south endzone, I wasn’t bothered with the location as we could see everything unfold on the field. As a big X’s and O’s guy, I get my own personal All-22 perspective from those seats, and attempt to break down what was happening on the field.
The Marching Band was great, as they normally are. Back in Black? As electric as I’ve ever seen it. The start of the game had Iowa’s offense forced to punt, but that Hawkeye defense gave Penn State a dose of the turnover bug immediately with Jestin Jacobs interception. The Nittany Lions defense was as stout as advertised, as they held Iowa to three.
Penn State then jumped on Iowa quickly, as Sean Clifford looked like a completely different quarterback than he did against the Hawkeyes at Happy Valley in 2020. A clean pocket never hurts a quarterback either, but Clifford’s decision-making was impressive, as he lead Penn State on three consecutive scoring drives to put the Nittany Lions up 17-3 in the 2nd quarter.
However, all the Iowa defense would need was one lick from Jack Campbell, to knock Sean Clifford out of the game, on the 3rd down prior to the field goal that put Penn State up 17-3. Iowa responded with a touchdown drive, with Charlie Jones barely getting the football over the pylon for a touchdown. Excitement was renewed in the stands, but what impressed me most is that the energy never got to a negative, subdued level. Noise was still coming from the Kinnick crowd when Penn State was driving to make it a 3-score game.
Enter Ta’Quan Roberson.
Roberson’s first drive was as disastrous as any quarterback, or Penn State fan, could imagine. Roberson fumbling the first snap and falling on it charged up the Kinnick crowd. Penn State would face a 3rd and 14, which resulted in a false start. Nittany Lions lined up again, another false start. A third replay of the 3rd down, and THIRD false start in a row. The 69,250+ Iowa fans were a pack of rabid wolves, hungry for blood. Never before had I heard a stadium as deafening as I did in that sequence, and I’ve attended a game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
Iowa’s offense continued to struggle in finding their footing however, with punts coming and going. But when you have Tory Taylor on the sidelines as your punters, is punting really that much of a negative burden?
Iowa’s defense managed to force Roberson into a pick at the end of the half, as Penn State went into the locker room with a 17-10 lead. I knew this game was very much in reach for Iowa, as negative as some of the liquored up students surrounding me sounded. All Iowa needed was a chunk play or two, to open everything up.
Teams traded punts and a field goal each leading off the second half. I could feel the restlessness of the crowd beginning to fester. Iowa needed, at the least, an explosive play to get the crowd really back into it.
In that moment, a fella from Bellevue, Nebraska reintroduced himself.
Keagan Johnson, took a hitch pattern for an explosive play, 42 yards to be exact, to the Penn State 8. Kinnick was rocking and waiting to explode…but didn’t get the chance. While many were frustrated, I was reassuring many that Iowa would find a way, knowing with how inept Penn State had been with Roberson at quarterback.
Iowa did get the ball back quickly, off a short punt. Brian Ferentz had the perfect playcall to combat the aggressiveness of the Penn State front seven and safeties. Nico Ragaini put his foot in the ground, and turned a post route into a flag route, Petras rolled right and set his feet and let it fly.
Absolute mayhem in Kinnick Stadium. The noises coming out of my mouth were somewhere between pure gibberish and incoherent yelling, and there were 69,250+ people who were doing the exact same thing. An all-time moment in the history of Kinnick Stadium.
It may sound arrogant of me, but once the extra point went through, I knew the game was over. With how Iowa’s defense had dominated with Roberson in at quarterback, there was next to zero chance he was going to do the improbable.
With three-and-a-half minutes left, my friends and I made the call that we were headed down, a field storm was in order. It took a little longer than normal with the football changing hands a couple more times. Spencer Petras took the final snap and knelt with the football.
The biggest swarm I’d ever seen overtook Kinnick Stadium, with the Iowa football team in the middle of all it, basking in the glow after one of the biggest wins in school history. Some on social media were critical of the storm, but no one cares. Expecting 18-22 year old kids to just head for the exits after their school just won a Top 5 matchup is naive, to say the least…unless you’re Alabama.
We cleared the field, we celebrated, we had beverages, but not for long, mostly because we were all physically drained. But the night was capped with reminiscing and awe. Did we really just watch that? Yes, yes we did.
Saturday was a day I’ll tell my kids and my grandkids about, and I hope that one day, they experience what I experienced when #3 Iowa got together with #4 Penn State, on October 9th, 2021. Much like I was told what it was like when #1 Iowa got together with #2 Michigan, on October 19th, 1985.