IOWA CITY, Iowa — For 18 seasons, Penn State and Iowa served as geographical opposites in the 11-team Big Ten Conference.
To list their differences would comprise the 800-mile stretch separating their two campuses. Or so we thought when Penn State joined the league in 1993. But from the moment Pennsylvania native Kirk Ferentz became Iowa’s football coach before the 1999 season, their two football programs produced iconic plays, games and moments. On the football field, there were more commonalities than variances.
Then, poof, the series was gone.
Two rounds of Big Ten realignment twice placed the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions in opposite divisions. It wasn’t a series either side was clamoring for each fall. Iowa was more concerned with maintaining rivalries with neighbors Wisconsin and Minnesota, and establishing one with Nebraska. Penn State wanted to maintain its border competition with Ohio State and then was super-glued to new members Maryland and Rutgers in the East Division.
So Penn State and Iowa rotated off one another’s schedule after the 2012 season. At 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday, after four years away, the schools finally meet again.
“That’s the one downside of expansion,” Ferentz said. “Maybe there are other ones, too. I don’t know. It’s just hard to have a flow when you have 14 teams in your league, and we’re not the only ones going through that.
“So to that point, it really does seem strange playing Penn State again, because it seems like forever. I mean, it was, what, four seasons, but it seems like 14. So that part is a little bit strange.”
The last time Iowa visited Beaver Stadium was in 2011, when Joe Paterno still walked the sidelines. The Nittany Lions unleashed a decade of frustration on the Hawkeyes in a 13-3 win. That game ended a three-year Iowa winning streak. The next year, under then-new coach Bill O’Brien, the Nittany Lions crushed the Hawkeyes 38-14 at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa offensive linemen Brandon Scherff and Andrew Donnal — both NFL draft picks — suffered season-ending injuries on consecutive plays early in the first half that sent both the game and season spiraling downward for the Hawkeyes.
Those victories were cathartic for Penn State in the wave of disappointing defeats to the Hawkeyes. From 2000 through 2010, Iowa won eight of their nine meetings. Nearly all of them represented a mile marker in Ferentz’s coaching career. Ferentz was 2-18 in his first 20 games at Iowa before traveling to State College in 2000. The Hawkeyes used four field goals from Nate Kaeding and a late interception from Ryan Hansen to pull out a 26-23 double-overtime win.
“There are occasional efforts in sports that are transcendent,” Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Mike Hlas wrote that day from State College. “Iowa, a team supposedly going nowhere, gave such an effort and seemed to be going somewhere. Namely, forward.”
That game kicked off five straight series wins for the Hawkeyes. In 2002, a game that featured Heisman Trophy finalists Brad Banks (Iowa quarterback) and Larry Johnson (Penn State running back), the Hawkeyes blew a 22-point lead but pulled out a 42-35 overtime win at Beaver Stadium. Iowa finished Big Ten play 8-0 that season, and Banks was second in Heisman voting. Johnson finished third.
Two years later, also at Beaver Stadium, Iowa and Penn State waged an epic slugfest that ended with an improbable 6-4 Hawkeyes victory. Two field goals, two safeties. It was physical, nasty and overcast. In other words, blue-collar Big Ten football.
“They were just acting like typical Iowa,” Penn State cornerback Anwar Phillips told ESPN’s Josh Moyer and Mitch Sherman in a 10-year retrospective story. “So to our understanding, man, it was no love lost. They were going to come in and act the same way and just be the same, old Iowa. I never recall a friendly Iowa game.”
The game had special meaning for Ferentz. His father died earlier in the week, and Ferentz delivered the funeral eulogy one day before the game. He and his family later joined the team in State College a few hours later. At game’s end, Ferentz embraced younger son James on the sideline and broke down. He did the same minutes later in an ESPN interview.
Penn State rode into Kinnick Stadium in 2008 with a 9-0 record and ranked No. 3 nationally. The Hawkeyes, who were 5-4, led 7-0 early but trailed 23-14 in the fourth quarter before rallying. After a Tyler Sash interception and ensuing drive, Iowa kicker Daniel Murray drilled a 31-yard field goal with one second left to win 24-23.
In 2009, the No. 5 Nittany Lions vowed a different outcome. ESPN’s College GameDay aired that morning from Beaver Stadium. Penn State’s first offensive play netted a 79-yard touchdown pass from Darryl Clark to Chaz Powell. A field goal put the Nittany Lions up 10-0. Then Iowa’s defense took over. Early in the fourth quarter, Iowa All-American defensive end Adrian Clayborn blocked a punt, scooped up the ball and ran 53 yards for a touchdown. The Hawkeyes won 21-10. Both teams finished with 11 victories that year.
“That game couldn’t have started any worse,” Ferentz said. “We talked about getting off to a fast start, take the crowd out, and holy smokes, it couldn’t have gone any worse. But the guys just kept playing.”
All of these moments comprise the mosaic of Iowa football under Ferentz. I’d argue the wins in 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008 and 2009 all rank in his top 15. Ferentz’s 132 wins at Iowa are seventh-most in Big Ten history.
While neither program would list the other as a traditional rival, it was a series respected by both fan bases and the television networks. Four of their last five meetings — including the matchup on Saturdday— were scheduled to air in prime time. That means it matters.
The schools are slated to play one another in four consecutive seasons through 2019. That will allow the series to regenerate. But what the teams had from 2000-2012 was as much of an on-field rivalry as of their other competitions. It just didn’t need a trophy for verification.