It was the most obvious turning point in a Penn State game in recent memory, especially one of this magnitude.
If you’re a Penn State fan and don’t want to relive the events that took place in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, go ahead and quit reading now.
If you’re an Iowa fan, you should definitely quit reading now, and find another way to reflect on your victory.
There may have never been more consensus among the pundits heading into this game - across the board, everyone was expecting a classic slugfest, with one team making a play at the right time to produce a victory in a low-scoring affair. There didn’t seem to be any other possible outcome.
Then the game started, and everyone’s expectations went out the window. Penn State drove up and down the field on Iowa’s vaunted defense with ease. They made chunk play after chunk play, leaving the Hawkeyes defense baffled and out of breath. Even two early interceptions couldn’t swing any momentum in Iowa’s direction, like it had done each week for the Hawkeyes that allowed them to stay unbeaten and vault up the rankings.
The Iowa offense looked baffled too, as it became more clear they would need to play from behind. They would also need somehow to find a way to keep pace with Penn State’s offense - something they were not suited to do.
Then everything changed. Sean Clifford was forced to exit the game for the afternoon. The outcome immediately became clear. We just had to wait another two and a half hours to watch Iowa be Iowa.
Backup quarterback Ta’Quan Roberson was clearly not up to the task. It was his first significant playing time, and unfortunately it came against the nation’s #2 scoring defense in front of a raucous environment. The Hawkeyes and their fans recognized this, and seized the opportunity.
After building a quick 17-3 lead, Penn State’s offense could only muster another three points with Clifford on the sideline. Iowa’s offense was able to settle down and return to their gameplan. Knowing that Penn State’s defense would be on the field almost nonstop the rest of the way, Iowa had to focus on playing smart football and chipping away at the lead. They did just that, and was able to pull off one big play to take a late - and permanent - lead.
The result has to leave both fanbases with mixed emotions. From my own experiences, I had realized that both sides of the ball were suddenly given an impossible assignment. Outside of a miraculous play or two, Iowa would eventually take the lead. We all knew it was coming.
I wasn’t sure how to even feel after the game. I had accepted the eventual results before halftime. It felt like Penn State had the game in its hands, until an unfortunate turn of events took them completely out of it at the drop of a hat. It felt more like bad luck than Penn State not being the better team, or worse yet, being the better team and beating themselves. Sure, they should have had a better handle on the quarterback situation to prevent total disaster in the event that Clifford was forced out of action. And perhaps Iowa’s defense would have settled in regardless. But with all things being equal, it was pretty apparent from what we saw on those first few possessions.
Iowa fans certainly felt relived, and regardless of circumstances, were rightfully joyful after winning such a momentous game. They deserve credit too - they played that classic Iowa brand of football - playing physical, not making mistakes and making the opponent earn everything. If it had been another opponent, I would have held out hope.
But they are likely where I’ve been several times throughout the years - trying to enjoy a successful season while ignoring the set of circumstances that got you there. If the roles were reversed, and Penn State stayed unbeaten by squeaking past an opponent who lost their quarterback and any pule of an offense for three quarters, I would be taking the victory with a grain of salt while waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I did it in ‘99 when trying to convince myself the defense couldn’t be as bad as they appear with the eye-popping collection of talent. I did it in ’07 when I kept telling myself the offense was just holding back before unleashing all of its playmakers. I did it in ‘09 when I was sure the offensive line would be just fine against the elite defenses on the schedule. Trust me, I’ve been there.
If the football gods are out there, there will be a rematch in Indianapolis on December 4. And if that doesn’t happen, we’ll always have that “What If?” memory of a quick moment of ecstasy that suddenly turned out to be a bleak Saturday afternoon in Iowa City.