IOWA CITY, Iowa — Most teams with designs on a championship need to survive at least one game when the outcome is uncertain until the final whistle.
No. 4 Penn State (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) needed every second to get past Iowa on Saturday, despite a box score that suggested that the Nittany Lions dominated the Hawkeyes.
Penn State outgained Iowa 579-273. It had 29 first downs to 11 for the Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1) and held the ball for nearly 40 minutes.
Yet it took a TD pass from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson on fourth down as time expired for the Nittany Lions to win.
“I told the guys in the locker room, ‘If you look at any really good season, there’s always one game where the team has to gut it out and find a way to win,’ and we were able to do that,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
One positive for the Nittany Lions is that they were able to move the ball at will at times against a good defense in their first road test.
Penn State put itself in serious danger of being upset because it couldn’t put the ball in the end zone enough.
Saquon Barkley was brilliant, with a career-high 211 yards rushing on 28 attempts and 12 catches for 94 yards. But the Nittany Lions settled for four field goal attempts, hitting two short ones, missing one and having another blocked late in the fourth quarter.
“I thought we were able to move the ball, we just weren’t finishing drives. We knew we just had to start finishing. That was kind of the word that was being thrown out a lot: we’ve got to finish, we’ve got to finish, we’ve got to finish,” McSorley said.
Much like last season, when Penn State used a bevy of second-half comebacks to win the Big Ten after a 2-2 start, the Nittany Lions came through when it mattered.
Iowa has a well-earned reputation for springing major upsets in night games at home, including one in 2008 that ended Penn State’s national title hopes. A pair of long touchdowns by Akrum Wadley seemed to put the Hawkeyes in position to do so again.
But McSorley was at his best on Penn State’s final drive. He found Saeed Blacknall for 6 yards on a fourth-and-2, and an 18-yard completion to Johnson got the Nittany Lions into Iowa territory.
The Hawkeyes appeared to have stuffed Penn State once it got in the red zone with under a minute to go. But on fourth down, McSorley stood strong in the pocket and drilled the ball through a crowded end zone and into Johnson’s chest.
“That was an excellent drive on their part. They really executed down the stretch when they had to. I thought their quarterback really stepped up in that possession,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Penn State hosts Indiana and travels to Northwestern over the next two weeks. Then the Nittany Lions have a bye ahead of a two-week stretch that’ll define their season, playing Michigan at home and Ohio State on the road to end October.
There’s a very good chance the Nittany Lions will head into November remembering how meaningful it was that they found a way to survive in Iowa City.