Ask most football fans around the country if Iowa vs. Penn State qualifies as a rivalry, and you’ll probably get more than a few blank stares. After all, there aren’t really any of the things that signify a rivalry in this matchup.
The teams don’t play each other every year, shipped to different divisions for the entirety of the Big Ten’s divisional eras. The teams don’t have a long history, as Penn State has only played in the Big Ten since the 1990s and barely played Iowa before that.
There’s not even a forced rivalry trophy, as Penn State has with the grotesque Land Grant Trophy against Michigan State or Iowa has with the forgettable Heroes Game trophy with Nebraska (a natural rivalry, to be sure, but most fans on either side care about winning the game and could take or leave the hardware).
Nonetheless, what you do have between Iowa and Penn State is a series of great games, historic moments, and just all-out great competition that defines everything that Big Ten fans love about their rivalry games.
The Nittany Lions and the Hawkeyes are almost always competitive, and in the era of Kirk Ferentz vs. James Franklin, four of the six meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. These teams have produced some truly great memories, including the ones below.
2004: Iowa 6, Penn State 4: A Win for Ferentz’s Father
Any list of Iowa-Penn State games would be incomplete without this game that only a Hawkeye could love. This game was classic Kirk Ferentz football, and it came just six days after the death of his father John. The day before the game, Ferentz went to Pittsburgh to bury his father, then came back to his team hurting but very much in command of this contest.
Iowa did everything it needed to do to win the game on defense, getting two field goals and letting the defense dominate from there. Ferentz called a brilliant game from start to finish but was never better than when he chose to take an intentional safety with eight minutes remaining and the Hawkeyes holding a 6-2 lead with a fourth down from their own 1.
With the way that game was going, Ferentz correctly guessed that Penn State wasn’t going to score anything unless its special teams created a play or the Hawkeyes gifted them with a short field.
Ferentz took both options out of the equation by having David Bradley intentionally run the ball out of the back of the end zone, gifting the Nittany Lions two ultimately meaningless points.
Why were they meaningless? Penn State would only touch the ball for two more plays over the final eight minutes — and both of them were turnovers. The Nittany Lions immediately tossed an interception to end one drive and fumbled on their next possession, giving Ferentz a big win and letting the tears flow on the sidelines.
2017: Penn State 21, Iowa 19: Barkley’s Big Day
Sometimes, you’re just up against true greatness and there’s not much you can do about it. The Hawkeyes’ defense certainly tried against Saquon Barkley and Penn State in 2017, but when you’re facing a back like that on his best day, you’re going to have a hard time doing much of anything.
The miracle was that Iowa almost won the game anyway. The Hawkeyes’ defense did enough to keep Penn State from getting to the end zone more than twice in the game’s first 59 minutes, as they made sure that Barkley’s yards weren’t worth all that much to the Nittany Lions’ efforts.
Nevertheless, with Iowa clinging to a 19-15 lead after a fourth-quarter comeback, the Nittany Lions rallied. Penn State ran 99 plays to Iowa’s 45, and the last proved the most devastating, as Trace McSorley found Juwan Johnson in the end zone as time expired, allowing the Nittany Lions to escape Iowa City with a 21-19 victory.
That was a typical evening in a season of might-have-been for the Hawkeyes. Iowa had no shot to beat out Wisconsin and win the West in 2017, but the Hawkeyes could have won 10 games if not for failing to close them out. They played six one-score games in 2017 and went just 3-3 in them.
2008: Iowa 24, Penn State 23: The Greene Out Game
Penn State has the White Out, and for one night, Iowa had the Greene Out. This was for running back Shonn Greene, who was making a run at the Heisman Trophy in 2008 and ultimately settled for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.
Greene certainly ran like a top back that night, as he rushed for 117 yards in front of thousands of Iowa fans who were dressed more like Michigan State supporters.
However, as is typical of Kirk Ferentz’s teams, the defense made the difference. Penn State came into the game putting up 40+ points on everyone except Ohio State and looked like it had a chance to win a national championship.
The Hawkeyes put the squeeze on the Nittany Lions in the fourth quarter, shutting out Penn State and allowing the offense to overcome a 23-14 deficit to win on Daniel Murray’s last-second field goal.
For Iowa, this game announced a return to form under Ferentz. The Hawkeyes had stumbled to a pair of six-win seasons in 2006 and 2007, leading to worries that Ferentz had taken Iowa as far as he could. This game was the start of the Hawkeyes again becoming a contender in the Big Ten. After this win over Penn State, Iowa didn’t lose again until November 2009.
2009: Iowa 21, Penn State 10: Ruining the Revenge
When Iowa rolled into Happy Valley in September 2009, Penn State had revenge on its mind. For the first time, the Nittany Lions had made Iowa the opponent for the annual White Out game, traditionally played as the biggest game on Penn State’s schedule.
And for most of the night, it looked like Penn State was going to exact revenge on the Hawkeyes and do it with the most Iowa-like conditions possible.
About the only saving grace for this game was the September temperatures meant that the driving rainstorm wasn’t snow (although the latter would have dramatically enhanced the White Out), as Penn State took a 10-0 lead in horrible conditions. But as is often the case, when the weather is at its worst, Iowa is at its best.
With the Nittany Lions hanging on to a 10-5 fourth-quarter lead, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn came up with a blocked punt and took it back 53 yards for a score and an 11-10 Iowa lead.
The shell-shocked Nittany Lions responded in the worst way possible, ending their next three possessions with two interceptions and a fumble. Iowa turned them into 10 more points, getting to a traditional football number and a win in the most Ferentz way possible.
2000: Iowa 26, Penn State 23: The Breakthrough
It’s hard to put this on the list over the non-comeback in 2002 when Penn State scored 29 unanswered points to force a 35-35 tie but ultimately lost the game in overtime. Though, this game cannot be overlooked because of just how much it meant to Iowa’s program and to Ferentz as a coach.
Over Ferentz’s first 20 games in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes went 2-18 and had just one win in the Big Ten over a weak Michigan State team. To make matters worse, not only had Ferentz not yet won a road game, but Iowa hadn’t won a game anywhere except Kinnick Stadium since September of 1998 when they rolled into Beaver Stadium.
This game was the first one that suggested that Iowa could change things and become a contender in the Big Ten. Penn State might have been struggling in 2000, but this was still a blueblood and a true road test, neither of which Iowa had come close to taking down before this game.
But Iowa bottled up the Penn State ground game and forced Rashard Casey to put the ball in the air 51 times, not exactly what you want to do against a secondary that featured a young Bob Sanders.
It became the first overtime game in Iowa history, and given how much the Hawkeyes had struggled over the past several seasons, many Iowa fans might have been happy to just take the tie under the old format and get out of Happy Valley without a defeat.
But Iowa showed its true mettle in overtime when Ryan Hansen intercepted Penn State in double overtime, giving the Hawkeyes their first win on the road in the Big Ten under Ferentz and signaling the resurrection of Iowa football.
In retrospect, that game was also the game that signaled the start of Iowa and Penn State as an underrated rivalry.
The new Big Ten schedule will bring them together regularly in 2024, and hopefully, the league makes sure to match up the Hawkeyes and the Nittany Lions as often as possible. This game is too good to make fans see it only once every four years.