Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide. To receive daily news from the Iowa Hawkeyes, sign up HERE.
By DARREN MILLER
IOWA CITY, Iowa — After his first start as an Iowa Hawkeye, sophomore Amani Hooker uttered three words that spoke volumes:
“We’re just tough,” Hooker said.
Moments earlier, the free safety was part of a defensive unit that yielded 579 yards on 99 plays. The Hawkeye defense was on the field 39 minutes and 39 seconds in 90 degree heat. Despite the temperature and playing an undefeated opponent ranked fourth in the nation, Iowa’s defense turned in big play after big play.
By halftime, defensive end Anthony Nelson had four tackles, two sacks, and a pass breakup. The biggest defensive play before the break was an interception and 33-yard return by linebacker Josey Jewell. Defensive end Sam Brinks forced Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley into an errant throw that landed in Jewell’s hands and set up a go-ahead touchdown pass.
“Our defense tried to play our hardest and we didn’t leave much out there at all,” Jewell said.
Jewell turned in a very Jewell-like performance with 16 tackles, three for a loss. It seemed like every down, a new Hawkeye turned up:
Josh Jackson with a pass breakup on third-and-goal from the 3, forcing the Nittany Lions into a field goal.
A.J. Epenesa causing a McSorley fumble that Jewell recovered.
Parker Hesse forcing a fumble.
Six Hawkeyes combining to break up eight passes.
“We had a lot of big plays,” Nelson said. “Those plays are a combination of everybody doing their job. If everybody is covered and everybody is in their lanes, then somebody will bust through and tackle the guy.”
Nelson did that five times. Or sack the guy, which Nelson did that 2 ½ times. Or block a field goal or pressure the quarterback, which Nelson also did against an offense that entered Saturday’s nationally televised primetime contest averaging 47 points a game.
“Our guys fought, simple as that,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s the beautiful thing about football. There are a lot of ways to win games and we knew coming into this game we would have to make it a team victory.”
Iowa was 102 seconds from its fourth consecutive team victory over a top 5 opponent in Kinnick Stadium. After Nelson blocked a 31-yard field goal attempt, the Hawkeyes drove 80 yards in three plays and took a 19-15 lead on Akrum Wadley’s 35-yard run. Penn State answered with an 80-yard drive of its own — in 12 plays — and scored on the game’s final snap to escape with a 21-19 decision.
“You have to empty the tank every game and give it all your effort,” said Jackson, who had five tackles to go with the touchdown-saving pass deflection.
Emotional, gut-wrenching outcomes can have an adverse effect on a team’s psyche; Jewell won’t let this game spoil the next eight.
“You have to have this game help for the rest of them,” Jewell said. “You have to pull something positive from this game to grow.”
Like playing with effort and hustle on every snap. Like giving the defending Big Ten champion everything it could handle in the conference opener.
“We’re going to come out every game and play our hardest,” Hooker said. “We’re not going to give up.”
Because this group of Iowa Hawkeyes is just tough.