By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – It wasn’t the same end zone, the same opponent or the same circumstances, but the feeling on Saturday night at Kinnick Stadium was eerily similar to the 1990 Bobby Olive game.
Only this time it was Penn State receiver Juwan Johnson who broke the hearts of Hawkeye fans by catching a 7-yard touchdown pass as time expired to lift the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions past Iowa 21-19 in the Big Ten opener for both teams.
Olive’s game-winning catch against Iowa on Nov. 10, 1990 was the first thing that came to mind as the Penn State players celebrated in the north end zone.
I know I’m going back a ways, but the feelings of shock, devastation and sadness that came from Olive’s game-winning touchdown catch 27 years ago was there again on Saturday night.
Others were reminded of Iowa’s 16-13 loss to Michigan State in the 2015 Big Ten Championship because it also featured a game-winning drive in the closing seconds that ended horribly for Iowa, and because it happened less than two years ago.
But for some reason, the 1990 loss to Ohio State, which came in the ninth game of the season, stuck in my mind during those tense moments immediately after Saturday's game.
A stadium that for three hours had been rocking with fans mesmerized over what was happening on the field suddenly became eerily silent with exception to the Penn State players and coaches celebrating their miracle finish.
One of the biggest wins in program history in less than two minutes became one of the most gut-wrenching losses in program history.
“We're disappointed with the loss; it's going to hurt for a while, but we'll move on,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “This team has had a great attitude and they've got great character, and we're going to push forward and get back to work here and flip the page on Monday.”
Ferentz would’ve had a similar message about moving on if Iowa had prevailed on Saturday.
The challenge is to not let Saturday’s loss fester from an emotional standpoint to where it affects the preparation for Michigan State, which is Iowa’s next opponent this coming Saturday in East Lansing, Mich.
“We never want to let it bleed into the next week,” said Iowa offensive lineman Sean Welsh.
The Spartans, who lost to Notre Dame 38-18 on Saturday, aren’t what they used to be just two seasons ago, but they are capable of winning at home should Iowa struggle.
“Just like when you win, there's a really good feeling that you've got to put that behind you after the 24 hours, and we'll have to do the same here,” Ferentz said. “The guys expended a lot tonight, too. That's the other factor, energy wise, just energy. It was a little bit warm out there.
“So we'll take care of them and make sure we do our best, but at some point you've got to move on. Win, lose or draw you've got to move on and make sure we don't miss an opportunity next week.”
The silence that swept over the stadium immediately after Johnson’s touchdown didn’t last long as fans proudly chanted “Let’s go Hawks” as the Iowa players left the field in their traditional swarm.
I can’t remember if the fans did the same thing after the loss to Ohio State 27 years ago, but it was encouraging to see on Saturday.
Iowa didn’t play well on Saturday, but it played hard, with passion and with a purpose.
The drama that unfolded during the Penn State game, and the fact that Iowa came so close to pulling off the upset, makes it easier to overlook the statistical mismatch that occurred.
Penn State running back Saquon Barkley by himself outgained Iowa 305 to 274 in total yards. He was clearly the best player on the field Saturday, and his team looked better than Iowa for most of the game.
You could argue that Penn Stare finally got what it deserved by winning on the final play, while Iowa got what it deserved after surrendering 579 yards.
As for Olive and his cohorts in 1990, they only had 59 seconds when they took possession near midfield after a short Iowa punt. Olive scored on a diving catch in the back of the south end zone with one second remaining and while being defended by all-Big Ten safety Merton Hanks.
Iowa bounced back to defeat Purdue 38-9 in its next game and would go on to play in the 1991 Rose Bowl for the third time under Hayden Fry.
Johnson and his cohorts had 1:42 left on the clock when they started the 80-yard game-winning drive on Saturday.
And just like the Ohio State game 27 years ago, Penn State made just enough plays to escape from Kinnick Stadium with a victory.
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley was only spectacular on one drive, but it was the game-winning drive when it mattered the most.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley never was spectacular in Saturday’s game, but he threw two more touchdown passes and avoided throwing an interception. Stanley has thrown 12 touchdown passes and jut one interception in four games.
“I think we just need to do what we’ve done all year is just continue to fight and compete,” Stanley said when asked about trying to rebound from such an emotional loss.
Saturday’s game might be the only time this season when Akrum Wadley isn’t the best running back on the field. But Wadley certainly had his moments, especially in the fourth quarter when he scored on a 70-yard pass from Stanley and on a 35-yard run.
Junior receiver Nick Easley also continues to make an impact, including scoring the game’s first touchdown on a 21-yard pass from Stanley with 37 seconds left before halftime.
A preferred walk-on from Newton, Easley has sort of replaced senior Matt VandeBerg as Iowa’s go-to receiver after transferring from junior college. Easley entered Saturday’s game with 16 catches, which was twice as many as Iowa’s second leading receiver.
Freshman defensive end A.J. Epenesa made a statement for more playing time with his performance on Saturday, which included one sack, one tackle for loss, three quarterback hurries and a forced fumble in limited playing time.
Fellow defensive end Sam Brinks also performed admirably on Saturday. Brinks is the polar opposite of Epenesa with regard to how they became Hawkeyes.
Epenesa was a five-star recruit who had offers from virtually every program in the country, while Brinks was s walk-on from Carroll, who was given an opportunity to show that he could compete at this level.
Brinks had one tackle for loss and one quarterback hurry in Saturday’s game. But it was a hustle play that stood out the most to me.
Barkley had broken loose for a long gain when Brinks finally helped bring him down. Brinks could’ve given up on the play, but he kept hustling and fighting and scrapping.
His team now must do the same under difficult circumstances.
The only problem with a game for the ages like Saturday’s instant classic is that somebody had to lose.
Bobby Olive and Juwan Johnson now share a place in Hawkeye history, a place where Hawkeye fans would prefer not to visit because like Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said on Saturday, it sucks to lose a game like that.