The Big Ten road to the Playoff runs through Iowa City
The Iowa Hawkeyes control their own destiny.
Only 2 things can stop Iowa’s bus from pulling up to Lucas Oil Field in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game on Dec. 4 — potholes, and the Hawkeyes themselves. And given Iowa’s formula for winning football games, the former seems more likely than the latter.
You couldn’t write a more Iowa script for the third-ranked Hawks’ 23-20 win over No. 4 Penn State at Kinnick Stadium.
The nation’s leader in interceptions picked off 4 more passes, lack of sideline trinkets to celebrate turnovers be darned.
The punter was a weapon, because this is Iowa. If you had to pick one player from this game who looked like a Heisman candidate, Tory Taylor might legitimately be the best choice.
Taylor averaged 44.2 yards on 9 punts, of which 6 were downed inside the 20, 5 inside the 10 and 3 inside the 5. Penn State’s average starting field position was its own 21-yard line. Iowa’s was its own 40.
The offense also played directly into the stereotypical Iowa football motif, shuffling slowly for 3 quarters before finally making the biggest individual play of the game — Spencer Petras’ 44-yard touchdown pass to Nico Ragaini that gave the Hawks their first lead since the opening drive of the game.
Penn State fans will rue the game-ending injury to quarterback Sean Clifford, which changed the whole complexion of the game. No one has moved the ball against Iowa’s defense like Clifford was able to, leading the Nittany Lions to 17 first-half points. Perhaps that success would have continued if he had been able to go in the second half.
For Iowa, that’s of little concern. This was the biggest challenge remaining in the regular season, and the Hawkeyes passed.
Iowa gets Purdue at home next week, then the benefit of a week off before traveling to Wisconsin to face the Badgers’ impotent offense. Northwestern’s defense can’t stop anyone. Minnesota and Illinois pose very little offensive threat, and could very well end up netting negative yardage against Iowa.
Nebraska will be a stout test in the season finale in Lincoln, but the Cornhuskers are everything the Hawks are not — fundamentally unsound and a total mess on special teams. That is pretty much the precise formula for losing to Iowa.
Someone very good will be waiting for Iowa in Indianapolis. Whether it’s Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State or these Nittany Lions again, that step of the process is daunting. As it should be.
But that’s a future concern. For now, the mood in Iowa City is celebration. Iowa football is the real deal, and it may be some time before an opponent can take that feeling away.