IOWA CITY, Iowa – A full moon loomed Saturday night over noisy Kinnick Stadium, and with it came some strange happenings in a duel of defenses between No. 10 Penn State and 17th-ranked Iowa.
On a night when the Nittany Lions had three touchdowns called back on the same drive, they still managed to come up with two second-half turnovers leading to 10 points and received clutch fourth-quarter running from freshman Noah Cain to defeat the Hawkeyes, 17-12, before a packed house of 69,034.
Linebacker Jan Johnson recovered a fumble at the Iowa 16 that led to a 33-yard field goal by Jake Pinegar late in the third quarter, and safety Jaquan Brisker intercepted a pass by Nate Stanley to set up a 35-yard drive that ended with Cain’s 5-yard run with just over 5 minutes remaining.
After a shaky start on offense, the Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) got their running game in gear, and quarterback Sean Clifford settled down. Cain finished with 102 yards on 22 carries, with 67 coming on 15 carries in the fourth quarter when the visitors held the ball for more than 10 minutes and prevented Iowa (4-2, 1-2) from making a comeback.
Clifford completed 5-of-15 passes in the first half but finished 12-of-24 for 117 yards with a 22-yard touchdown pass to KJ Hamler. He also rushed 16 times for 52 yards, including a clutch 11-yard third-down run on the final touchdown drive.
“We didn’t turn the ball over,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “We reserved our right to punt and play great defense, and we did just enough to win.
“I talked to the guys in the locker room. There’s guys that probably felt like they didn’t play great tonight, but we played good enough to win, and we should always feel like that.”
One of the weirdest drives ever made by a Penn State team came in the third quarter after Johnson’s recovery of a fumble by Tyler Goodson deep in Hawkeyes territory. Two touchdowns were nullified by a holding penalty, and another apparent score, by tight end Pat Freiermuth, was overturned on review when officials ruled Freiermuth’s knee hit the ground before the ball broke the plane.
“To be honest, I was surprised,” Freiermuth said. “I saw the replay. I think I was in. It’s frustrating not getting over the goal line and settling for a field goal, but we did our thing, and we got the win.”
Franklin chose to stay rather close-mouthed about the sequence rather than risk a fine.
“Trust me, I’d love to have a lengthy conversation about this,” he said. “I know our fans want me to have a lengthy conversation about it. It’s not going to do any good. I’m going to enjoy the win. I’m going to focus on the things that we can control. I know. I get it. But I’m in a no-win situation here.”
The offensive star of the game had to be Cain, who played the entire fourth quarter as a member of the four-man rotation at running back that the Lions have employed all season.
Following Brisker’s interception at the Iowa 35, Cain ran the ball on five of eight plays, going for seven yards on a third down for first-and-goal at the 8, and scored two plays later with 5 minutes, 17 seconds left to play to give the Lions a 17-6 lead.
“I think he just runs extremely hard,” center Michal Menet said. “He wants every single yard, and he’s ready to earn it. He has really good vision. He can really see holes quickly, see how blocks are kind of developing and be able to diagnose where to hit it.”
The Hawkeyes, whose only points for most of the game came from two field goals by Keith Duncan, scored with 2:31 to play on a 33-yard pass from Stanley to Brandon Smith. Iowa decided to kick deep and try to hold Penn State and get the ball back but never did as Cain carried five straight times, one netting the game’s final first down.
“We want to end it on our terms, being able to take that knee” at the end of the game, Clifford said. “That’s a great feeling, especially after that type of game, really hard-nosed. This atmosphere was definitely the craziest that I’ve ever been a part of. I’m just happy.”
Clifford finally settled down on Penn State’s first possession of the second quarter, a 15-play drive during which he converted all four of his team’s third-down opportunities. He went 4-of-7 passing, including his 22-yard touchdown pass to Hamler, who hurdled over the final tackler and got into the end zone.