In 2008, it appeared for a while as if Penn State had a team that may be a legitimate national title threat.
Lead by Daryll Clark and the revolutionary “Spread HD” offense (which was just Jay and Galen Hall finally catching up with the rest of the country), the Nittany Lions had been boat racing teams early in the season. And after a narrow victory at the Horseshoe thanks to Mark Rubin and the slippery fingers of Terrelle Pryor, Penn State reached No. 3 in the country and were favored in each of its three remaining regular season games.
In steps Iowa. And Kirk Ferentz. And Kinnick Stadium. And some weird weather bullshit.
It was well known at this point that Ferentz and Iowa were the bugaboo of the Nittany Lions under Joe Paterno. Up to that point the Hawkeyes were 6-5 against Penn State in Big Ten play and 5-2 under Ferentz. So understandably, Nittany Lions fans had their fears leading into the game.
The uncertainty of the health of star quarterback Daryll Clark as well as cold temps and high winds only served to stoke those fears and when the Hawkeyes scored on a Shonn Greene touchdown run less than 90 seconds in, it was full-on panic mode.
But then Penn State began to settle in a bit. Kevin Kelly hit a short field to make it 7-3 late in the first quarter and then Evan Royster put the Nittany Lions up with a 2-yard plunge to start the second.
Penn State had built a 16-7 lead early in the third quarter as things began to settle down, but three field goals rather than touchdowns inside the red zone, including kicking twice inside the 10, had some fans feeling uneasy.
When Ricky Stanzi found Derrell Johnson-Koulianos from 27 yards out to cut the lead to 16-14 late in the third quarter, it was back to high alert.
Once again, however, the Nittany Lions seemed to have an answers as Derrick Williams’ 9-yard scamper with just seconds to go in the third helped them regain a two-score lead at 23-14.
Greene’s second score of the day with 9:20 left in regulation cut it to 23-21 and made sure we were in for an ending fraught with fear regardless of the outcome.
On the ensuing drive, it appeared the ball would go right back to the Hawkeyes after a three-and-out but a roughing the punter call against Colin Sandeman on Jeremy Boone kept the ball with the good guys.
It then seemed, briefly, that Penn State would make Iowa pay. The Nittany Lions drove the ball down inside the Hawkeyes 25, but after a negative play and a, frankly questionable, holding call against Rich Ohrnberger, it was suddenly 3rd and 24 at the Iowa 36.
Clark dropped back, stepped into a clean pocket and fired toward an open Derrick Williams in the middle of the field. Unfortunately, the ball sailed about two feet over the head of Williams and into the waiting arms of safety Tyler Sash, who then returned it out to the 29-yard line.
On the final, fatal drive it first appeared that Penn State would get a stop. It had forced Iowa into a 3rd and 15 straight away before the Hawkeyes were able to avoid being called for an egregious hold of their own and were gifted a first down thanks to an unnecessary pass interference by Anthony Scirrotto.
Iowa came up big again just minutes later, converting on 3rd and 10 from midfield before methodically working the ball down 14-yard line to set up kicker Daniel Murray. Murray, despite being just 1 of 3 on the season, hammered home the 31-yarder with just one second remaining, giving the Hawkeyes their first win against a top-10 opponent since 1990.
The Nittany Lions went on to finish the regular season 11-1 and win the Big Ten, giving them a subsequent berth in the Rose Bowl where they ensured Mark Sanchez would be handsomely paid in the NFL, losing to USC 38-24.
Whether Penn State would’ve been able to slow down Oklahoma and Heisman Trophy winner Sam Bradford is certainly up for debate, but never getting the chance to do so leaves a sour taste in mouths of fans and players alike.