By Pat Harty
The Iowa football team still is tied with Wisconsin in the Big Ten West standings, and that would normally be cause for celebration because the Badgers have dominated the division.
But not this time.
Not after what happened at Beaver Stadium where No. 17 Penn State withstood its own mistakes and Iowa’s late charge to win 30-24 on Saturday.
Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley, who just two weeks earlier had thrown a career-high six touchdown passes in a victory at Indiana, performed woefully on Saturday against the Nittany Lions. He only completed 18-of-49 passes for 205 yards and was intercepted twice, including near the Penn State end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Stanley also misfired badly on a play in the first half in which tight end T.J. Hockenson broke free from the line of scrimmage and was wide open about 15 yards down field,but Stanley overthrew him.
That was one of the first signs that Stanley just didn't have it on Saturday.
All 24 of Iowa's points were scored either by the defense, which had a pick-six by defensive back Geno Stone in the fourth quarter, or on special teams.
Stanley was hindered by a sore thumb on his right throwing hand, but that doesn’t excuse his overall performance, which was truly a head scratcher.
The third-year junior was making his 21st consecutive start on Saturday, and you would’ve thought that Stanley was beyond playing as poorly as he did. There were times when he looked tight, overwhelmed and confused against a Penn State defense that entered Saturday’s game ranked ninth in the conference in total defense.
Two weeks ago after Iowa's 42-16 victory over Indiana, there was speculation that Stanley might skip his senior season to enter the 2019 NFL Draft.
ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay, who helped call Saturday’s game on television, has Stanley ranked as the third best quarterback prospect for the 2019 draft.
However, by halftime of Saturday’s game, some Iowa fans were calling for Stanley to be benched.
Stanley isn’t ready for the NFL despite what McShay thinks. But Stanley also doesn't deserve to be benched, unless his thumb injury is more serious than it appears to be.
You also can’t blame Stanley entirely for his interception on the Penn State 2-yard line because the entire play seemed to break down.
Stanley lined up in shot gun formation and signaled that the play was being changed.
The new play was supposed to be a quick flare to running back Toren Young, but the play clock was winding down.
So as tight end Noah Fant turned to receiver Nick Easley to commuincate the play call, the ball was snapped without Fant being ready. That threw the timing off and prevented Fant from being a decoy.
Penn State defensive back Nick Scott then interecepted Stanley's pass and Iowa had blown yet another golden opportunity that could have given it the lead.
My only question is why throw in that situation on first down?
It's easy for me to question the play calling with the benefit of hindsight. But there still was over 3 minutes left to play and Mekhi Sargent was running effectively at that time.
The loss lowered No. 18 Iowa’s record to 6-2 overall and 3-2 in the conference, which is also Wisconsin’s conference record following its loss to Northwestern on Saturday.
The Fighting Fitzgerald’s have sole possession of first place in the West Division with a 5-1 record. Northwestern also has won 12 of its last 13 conference games dating back to last season, which is absolutely incredible.
Iowa will face another difficult road test when it plays at Purdue next Saturday. The Boilermakers saw their four-game winning streak end at Michigan State on Saturday.
Iowa and Penn State were tied at 17 at halftime, which is a typical football score, but how Iowa scored its 17 points hardly was typical.
Iowa’s first-half points came on a safety, a field goal, a touchdown in which defensive lineman Sam Brincks caught a pass from punter Colten Rastetter on a fake field, and another safety.
Both of Iowa’s safeties came as a result of Penn State botching the snap on a punt.
From Iowa’s perspective, it felt like a wasted opportunity to be tied at halftime, and it was maybe the strangest first half I have witnessed in all of my years of covering the Iowa football team, which dates back to 1992.
Iowa is still very much alive in the West Division, but the chance to be special probably ended with Saturday’s loss.
I had picked Iowa to finish 8-4 in early August with Penn State one of the losses.
But then I changed my mind this past week because I started buying into the hype that this Iowa team was special, but also because I had little faith in Penn State.
The Nittany Lions did nothing to earn my respect with Saturday’s victory because they gave Iowa so many chances to prevail with their sloppy play.
Saturday’s game was there for the taking with Penn State’s numerous mistakes and with Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley slowed by a knee injury.
Iowa just failed to take it, mostly because Stanley had an off day. He certainly doesn't deserve all the blame for Saturday's loss, but he has to be better.
The defense played well enough for Iowa to win, allowing just 312 yards, while junior running back Mekhi Sargent provided a spark with 91 rushing yards.
Iowa now has to avoid letting Saturday's loss linger and turn into another loss.
And whether that happens will depend a greatly on how Stanley responds to this latest adversity.
It was fitting that Saturday's game ended with Iowa offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs running with the football because it was just a bizarre game with some bizarre individual performances. Wirfs had scooped up the football after Stanley was hit and fumbled in the pocket.
For Stanley, the final play of the game was like pouring salt on a wound that just kept getting bigger.