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Penn State beats Iowa: Five observations

The Nittany Lions did not play their best game but ground out a big victory over their first ranked opponent of the season.

Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) breaks a tackle by Iowa defensive lineman Cedrick Lattimore.
Penn State running back Noah Cain (21) breaks a tackle by Iowa defensive lineman Cedrick Lattimore.Read moreMatthew Holst / MCT

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Penn State’s game at loud and iconic Kinnick Stadium wasn’t a work of art Saturday night, but the 10th-ranked Nittany Lions did enough in the clutch to leave with a 17-12 victory over No. 17 Iowa in hand, and a bowl bid secured.

That the bowl bid was pretty much an afterthought shows how far the program has come since the NCAA sanction years. Here are five observations from the game:

Passing their first big test

Penn State built its 5-0 start on a relatively easy schedule against five opponents that currently have a combined record of 13-18, with Pittsburgh (4-2) the only one above .500.

So the trip to Iowa and the noisy Kinnick environment for their first game against a ranked team gave the Nittany Lions a chance to show that they are contenders for a College Football Playoff spot and not just seeking attention from the back of the pack.

It wasn’t pretty, but the Lions showed the grit and guts that will serve them now that the schedule has taken a serious turn to better teams – their next five opponents are an aggregate 25-6 including unbeaten Minnesota and Ohio State, both on the road. It was a victory for all three phases – offense, defense, and special teams.

Grinding it out on the ground

James Franklin called on his offensive line and freshman Noah Cain to bring it home in the fourth quarter and everyone responded. Cain, who stood out yet again in Penn State’s weekly four-man running back rotation, finished with 102 yards on 22 carries, including 67 yards in the fourth quarter when the Lions played keep-away from the trailing Hawkeyes, holding the ball for more than 10 minutes.

Franklin was thrilled that his team was able to run out the clock after Iowa scored with 2 ½ minutes to play, and gave a shout-out to his line. “I’m proud of our O-line,” the head coach said. “We didn’t play perfect but we are getting better. They’re fighting, they’re scratching, they’re clawing. I’m proud of them.”

The hits keep coming

The Nittany Lions allowed 356 total yards, well over their average of 240.4 entering the game, and gave up some chunk plays. But they kept the Hawkeyes out of the end zone for more than 57 minutes. Their first-in-FBS pass rush got to Nate Stanley for only two sacks but took turns wearing down the big senior with hits and hurries.

Redshirt senior tackle Robert Windsor had 1 ½ of the team’s sacks and was credited with two of the Lions’ five hurries. Linebacker Micah Parsons got a hard but clean shot at Stanley as the Hawkeyes senior was releasing the ball, and Shaka Toney (one-half sack) had a couple of near-misses. Stanley did gain 286 yards through the air, but they were hard-earned.

Gillikin finds his mojo

A steady contributor for four years, Blake Gillikin this season has not exactly punted to the standard he has set during his career, but he came up with a number of great boots that backed up the Hawkeyes in their own territory all night long. Gillikin punted seven times for a 42.1-yard average and dropped five of those inside the Iowa 20.

The Hawkeyes finished the game with an average starting field position of their own 17-yard line, with Gillikin’s work making them start at the 17, the 11, the 3, the 8, and the 4. “Blake played a great game pinning them deep,” quarterback Sean Clifford said.

Handling distractions

The week began with Penn State players outraged over a letter that many of them thought was racist, an older university alumnus criticizing co-captain Jonathan Sutherland over his dreadlocks. Franklin said that the matter was addressed Tuesday so players could focus on Iowa, but a few players led by safety Lamont Wade made sure fans knew their thoughts when he wore a shirt during warm-ups that read: "Chains, Tattoos, Dreads, and ‘We Are.’ ”

Franklin told ABC’s Holly Rowe the players acted “on their own” in wearing the shirts. Penn State later issued a statement that said, "While we are supportive of our students expressing themselves in a thoughtful manner, they are expected to wear team-issued apparel on game day. We asked our students to remove the shirts out of an abundance of caution for NCAA compliance.”