IOWA CITY, Iowa —After fighting off a slew of key injuries on both sides of the ball and a top five opponent, the dam finally broke for Penn State.
The No. 3 Nittany Lions jumped out to a two-touchdown lead at Kinnick Stadium against No. 4 Iowa, but ultimately fell 23-20 after quarterback Sean Clifford left the game with an injury in the second quarter.
Clifford exited with the Nittany Lions leading by 14 and completely in control of the game after taking a hit on his left shoulder, and the afternoon slowly unraveled from there. Iowa chipped away at the deficit all afternoon, finally taking the lead on a 43-yard pass from Spencer Petras to Nico Ragaini with 6:26 remaining.
Penn State’s last big opportunity to score came when it went for a 4th-and-3 from the Iowa 47 with just under four minutes remaining. Roberson found Keyvone Lee in the flat, but Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins made a tackle one yard short of the sticks to turn the ball over on downs.
Clifford’s afternoon got off to an inauspicious start when he threw an interception out of his own end zone on Penn State’s first offensive snap of the game. Iowa entered the game leading the nation with 12 interceptions on the season, and it picked up four more against Penn State. The Nittany Lions only surrendered three points off the interception thanks to a clutch goal line stand, and did not yield any points off the other two interceptions.
After dodging the early bullet off the interception, Penn State’s offense took advantage of the momentum with the first touchdown of the game. Clifford completed five out of his seven passes on the drive, setting up a two-yard touchdown run from Noah Cain.
Cain scored a touchdown on his last trip to Kinnick Stadium in Penn State’s 17-12 win over Iowa in 2019, and was the only running back for the Nittany Lions who found the end zone in the 2021 game.
Clifford’s second interception of the first quarter was immediately redeemed when safety Jaquan Brisker picked up a tipped ball for an interception of his own. Four plays later, Clifford took it in himself from four yards out to make it 14-3 Penn State.
Penn State made it 17 unanswered points when Jordan Stout tacked on a field goal, but Clifford exited the game with an injury. On top of Clifford’s injury Penn State lost starting defensive tackles PJ Mustipher and Dvon Ellies, with the former ending up on the sideline later in the game on crutches and the latter returning to the game after a stint in the injury tent. In total seven Penn State players left the game with the trainers throughout the afternoon, and the attrition eventually caught up with the defense.
Iowa cut the deficit in half on a nine-yard touchdown from Spencer Petras to Charlie Jones midway through the second quarter, and the game devolved into a defensive struggle from there. Roberson managed to lead the Nittany Lions on a field goal drive in the third quarter, but a big gash from Iowa running back Tyler Goodson moved the Hawkeyes into field goal range and brought the deficit back within a score.
Penn State’s offense only gained five yards of offense on its first two possessions of the fourth quarter, and pre-snap penalties didn’t help. The Kinnick Stadium crowd helped induce eight false start penalties, and the Nittany Lions faced third downs with over 25 yards to go on two separate occasions due to the penalties.
A defense that had been battered and bruised all day due to injuries finally ran out of steam clinging to a 20-16 lead. After yet another three-and-out from the Penn State offense and a short punt, Iowa started a possession from the Penn State 43. Petras rolled out to his right and found his tight end wide open for a throwback, and Ragaini tip-toed the sideline to score what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
Penn State did get two late opportunities after the touchdown and Hankins’ fourth down stop when the defense forced another three-and-out, but the field position battle proved costly. Penn State’s average starting field position was its own 22, and it got the ball back at its own eight with 2:38 remaining. After three incompletions Roberson threw up a deep ball on fourth-and-10. Hankins came down with the interception, Roberson’s second and Penn State’s fourth of the game.
One final turnover on downs with two seconds remaining sealed the win for the Hawkeyes, who moved to 6-0 while Penn State fell to 5-1.
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