Howe: Missed Opportunity

The Hawkeyes went into Penn State with a chance to make a move in the Legends Division. Instead, they played into the hands of the Nittany Lions in a loss.

Let's get the niceties out of the way first.

Penn State played well, had a good game plan and executed well enough to win. Give the Nittany Lions credit.

Ok. Now let's talk about Iowa.

The Hawkeyes' 13-3 loss in Happy Valley on Saturday represented their first double-digit setback since Purdue in 2007. That also was the last time they failed to score a touchdown in a game.

A lot of casual fans might look at that score as justified. It's blue blood Penn State taking care of little ole' Iowa in front of 105,000 fans. When the leaves change, this is what takes place in Happy Valley.

That's not reality. The Hawkeyes have more wins than does Penn State dating back since '02 and won the last three meetings and nine of the last 10 coming into Saturday. This is not your father's Penn State (or your grandfather's).

It looked like it would be a match-up of Iowa's high-octane offense against a stingy Lions' defense. The teams were iffy, at best, on their respective other sides of the ball.

Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz has been defined by his physical style of play, featuring a conservative, pound-it-out offense and a bend-but-don't-break defense. He's played the odds and won pretty consistently for the program since taking over fror Hayden Fry on 1999.

We saw it possibly cost the Hawkeyes in a double-overtime loss at rival Iowa State in Week 2. They sat on the ball with a chance to maybe score the winning points in regulation and kicked a field goal on fourth and one in overtime.

I explain my thoughts on that approach in my column from after the Cyclone game. A synopsis: This is the coaching staff's M.O. It shouldn't shock anyone.

The Hawkeyes rolled that way the following week against visiting Pittsburgh and fell behind by three touchdowns in the third quarter. Then, Ferentz let his offensive coordinator, Ken O'Keefe, open it up. Quarterback James Vandenberg and his crew thrived in a no-huddle, shotgun, hurry-up offense. The comeback posted against the Panthers was thought to be the largest in program history.

Iowa kept the pedal to the metal a week later against ULM. The offense looked unstoppable, albeit against a team that was overmatched. Last week's bye was to give the coaches and players a chance to fine tune the machine.

Ferentz deserved credit. He moved away from his comfort zone and played to the strength of his team - fast offense.

After Iowa State, Ferentz said he thought his defense would get a stop against the Cyclones and that's why he chose to kick the overtime field goal. He learned that the defense was a work in progress. He saw more of that against Pittsburgh for three quarters and ULM even put together two, long, touchdown drives in the third period.

So, Ferentz leaned on the high-powered offense, which in turn made things easier on his defense. Some of the defenders have said they fed off their sister unit putting it on the other team.

Then, we arrived at Saturday. It was back to the low-risk approach. Ferentz wanted to again see if Iowa could win the way it has under him for much of the last 12 plus years.

The Hawkeyes quickly moved the ball on their first possession Saturday. They got down to the Penn State 33 before having to punt. It seemed once they crossed midfield, they got conservative with play calling, trying to run on a stout Lions rush defense.

Penn State started on its own 10. Ferentz had to be pleased as the Hawkeyes looked to win the field position battle.

The Lions' offense had been anemic through five games. They ranked 92 in the country at 23.2 points per game.

Ferentz probably felt like he could go conservative on offense because Penn State would struggle to score. Unfortunately, his defense ranked 53rd in the country in scoring allowed at 23.2.

The Lions rolled down the field on their first possession. Yes, the march was aided by a pass that ricocheted off an official into the hands of the home team. But that was one play and the drive wouldn't be an aberration on this day.

After a Penn State field goal following the 18-play march, Iowa moved all the way down to the Lion four. The Hawkeyes settled for three points after a 12-men-on-the-field penalty on third down.

Penn State took over on its 16 and charged down the field in 12 plays to the visitor three. Another field goal made it 6-3. Credit Iowa's bend-but-don't-break defense for holding the Lions to six.

Penn State had run 30 plays in its first two drives, however. Iowa's defense looked more like it did against Iowa State than ULM. Despite Ferentz saying on Tuesday that he and his coaches had identified the team's strengths and worked on them in the bye week, they went away what had succeeded against the last two games.

Yes. Iowa only allowed 13 points for the game. But the Hawkeyes only had four, first-half possessions and 10 for the game because Penn State ran the ball at will, thus shortening the game.

The visitors best asset - the offense - was on the sideline for much of the day as the Lions held almost an 11-minute, time-of-possession advantage. Micah Hyde picked off a potential touchdown pass to squelch another Penn State drive.

In fairness to the coaches, the Iowa players didn't have a great day. The receivers and tight ends dropped passes. Vandenberg's happy feet and poor decisions he showed at Iowa State returned on Saturday. They turned it over four times. Had they played better, who knows, maybe the game plan works.

That said, why not play to your strength as coaches? Why, essentially, sit on the ball with almost two minutes on the clock and three timeouts before halftime down 6-3? The Iowa players looked like they wanted to go hurry-up, no-huddle offense there, but we saw three consecutive running plays to Marcus Coker.

It's frustrating to lose. It's more frustrating watching a team play not to lose.

Iowa scored 30 or more points in four consecutive games this season for the first time since '02, when it won a Big Ten title. Saturday, the Hawkeyes tallied the fewest points of any Penn State opponent this season, which included contests with Eastern Michigan and FCS Indiana State.

I honestly believe Ferentz felt Saturday's game plan gave his team the best chance to win. If not, than why do it, right?

That just tells me he doesn't have a good read on this year's team yet. Or, he's more stubborn than I thought.

Iowa enjoyed a rhythm with the no-huddle attack. The defense got into a groove with it. Everything looked discombobulated Saturday.

Now, good 'ole Northwestern comes to Iowa City for a primetime game next week. The Wildcats hold Iowa's number as the Hawkeyes had with Penn State.

Iowa will need to score points next week. The Wildcats and quarterback Dan Persa are likely to give the Hawkeye defense some fits.

We can hope that Saturday's game plan was specific to Penn State and it's conservative strengths. If not, it could be a season of what could have been.


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