By Pat Harty
Mekhi Sargent had just reached the Iowa sideline after scoring a touchdown late in the second quarter against Penn State when fellow Iowa running backs Tyler Goodson and Ivory Kelly-Martin rushed to congratulate him.
It was hard to tell who amongst the three running backs was the most excited about Sargent’s touchdown, and that’s a great sign for this Iowa team, which defeated Penn State 41-21 on Saturday at Beaver Stadium to push its winning streak to three games.
There were so many good signs in this win, from Iowa’s dominance on the line of scrimmage to Daviyon Nixon’s individual dominance at defensive tackle to Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s determination and effort as a blocker.
Put all of that together and you have an Iowa team that is 3-2 and gaining confidence and momentum with 1-3 Nebraska up next on the schedule on Black Friday at Kinnick Stadium.
A season that looked bleak when Iowa started 0-2 now looks promising and filled with hope and optimism.
An Iowa program that has been rocked by racial unrest since early June is now showing the kind of stability, unity and trust that it takes to win at the Big Ten level.
And while it’s true that Penn State fell to 0-5 for the first time ever, Iowa can only play the teams on its schedule, and a visiting team never should have to apologize for winning at Happy Valley by 20 points, even without fans in the stands.
The fact that Iowa has played all five of its games so far despite the constant threat from the COVID-19 global pandemic is a testimony to the focus, preparation and awareness of the players, coaches and support staff.
The Nittany Lions showed their character by rallying in the third quarter behind senior quarterback Sean Clifford, who was inserted in the game for Will Levis with Penn State trailing 31-7 in third third quarter.
Clifford, who had been the starter throughout this season and for all of last season, provided an immediate spark by throwing two touchdown passes that trimmed the deficit 31-21 in the fourth quarter.
Penn State then forced Iowa to punt and had a chance to cut more into the deficit, but then Iowa defensive end Chauncey Golston intercepted a deflected pass from Clifford.
However, the drive stalled and Keith Duncan converted a 24-yard field with with 7 minutes, 14 seconds remaining to give Iowa a 34-21 lead.
The Iowa defense then rose to the occasion on Penn State’s next possession by forcing a punt with less than 4 minutes to play.
Nixon, a junior defensive tackle, then continued his spectacular season by returning an interception 71 yards for a touchdown in the closing minutes to secure the victory.
Iowa dominated Saturday’s game more than the final score would indicate.
Defensive coordinator Phil Parker certainly wasn’t pleased with his defense allowing Penn State to get back in the game with the two touchdowns in the third quarter.
But take away those two pass plays and Iowa was stout on defense for the most part.
Sargent, who backs up Goodson, rushed for 101 yards scored two touchdowns, while senior linebacker Nick Niemann finished with a career-high 17 tackles.
“The defensive line played a big role in (my tackles),” said Niemann. “When you have guys up there doing their job, keeping the linemen off the linebackers, it’s easy for us to make plays. I give a lot of credit for them.”
Niemann’s praise for the defensive line is another example of the unselfishness on this team. Nobody seems to care who makes a play as long as somebody does.
Freshman punter Tory Taylor had yet another solid performance, while sophomore center Tyler Linderbaum continues to dominate at the point of attack.
As for sophomore quarterback Spencer Petras, his performance in the first half was maybe his best stretch of play all season. He made some nice throws into tight windows, and he didn’t force many throws.
However, Petras struggled at times in the second half. But in the end, it didn’t matter, because more than anything, Saturday’s victory, which ended a six-game losing streak against Penn State, was decided by Iowa’s dominance at the line of scrimmage.
“This has been a rear-end kicking from start to finish. Iowa is just mauling them,” said former Penn State linebacker Matt Millen, who was part of the Big Ten Network’s crew that worked that Saturday’s game.
It was the perfect script for Kirk Ferentz to get his 100th Big Ten win because the offensive line is considered his area of expertise.
Iowa Athletic Director Gary Barta presented Ferentz with game ball in the locker room after the game.
The players then cheered loudly for their head coach.
“There is no one we’d rather play for,” Petras said. “He’s an outstanding coach and this is a great accomplishment and for it to come at an historic place like Penn State. What an accomplishment.”
Ferentz now joins Woody Hayes (153), Bo Schembechler (143) and Amos Alonzo Stagg (115) as the only Big Ten football coaches with at least 100 career victories.
Needless to say, that puts the 65-year old Ferentz in some select company with three of college football’s biggest coaching legends.
“I’ve been 30 years at Iowa plus now, great people, players coaches, staff, administration, it’s a great place,” Ferentz said. “I’m really appreciative to be there.”
One of the keys to Ferentz’s success, and his longevity, is that he never gets too high after a big win or too low after a devastating loss. He just keeps grinding and living in the moment and promoting a team-first mentality.
Ferentz’s legacy has certainly been tarnished by the accusations of racial disparities by multiple black former players.
But he is determined to fix Iowa’s culture, and how a team performs on the field is often reflective of the culture.
And based on Iowa’s last three games, the culture is getting better.
A Big Ten West Division title is no longer a possibility for Iowa with Northwestern having defeated Wisconsin on Saturday. But just the chance to play, and to compete in these surreal circumstances, should be enough to keep the players motivated.
Because, for a while, it looked as if there wouldn’t even be a 2020 season.
Smith-Marsette has yet to have a breakout game this season, and he also was suspended for one game after being charged with drunken driving.
But the New Jersey native hasn’t let that stop him from helping in other ways, most notably as a blocker, and as a leader.
And that’s great sign for this team.