In 2017, Trace McSorley connected with Juwan Johnson in buzzer-beating fashion to put Iowa away 21-19 in Kinnick Stadium.
Two seasons later, a Noah Cain rushing touchdown with 5:17 remaining all but decided the outcome in No. 10 Penn State’s 17-12 victory over the No. 17 Hawkeyes.
As Saturday approaches, the Nittany Lions prepare to return to Iowa City for the third time in five years, this time bringing back familiar faces, including Cain.
While his five-yard score put the blue and white up by a somewhat sizable margin, enough to allow another touchdown late in the game and still pull out the win, Cain’s overall performance against Iowa in 2019 spoke larger than his one touchdown alone.
In fact, Cain’s first trip to Kinnick, his most recent 100-yard outing, remains one of the most memorable of his career.
Still searching for the same production on the ground in 2021, offensive tackle Rasheed Walker said Cain and the rest of the running backs are “juiced up” to return to Iowa, where Cain and Saquon Barkley in 2019 and 2017, respectively, put up breakout performances.
“I remember that game in 2019,” Walker said. “Noah really did his thing… He works hard, he’s excited for the game coming up.”
Just as the running backs are excited for their trip to Iowa, many Nittany Lion fans were excited for a strong performance on the ground this season, following Cain’s return from a season-ending injury in 2020.
Unfortunately for the blue and white, this season hasn’t been too thrilling for the “LawnBoyz.”
Through five games, a Nittany Lion back has yet to break the 80-yard threshold.
According to running back Keyvone Lee, the woes on the ground have been acknowledged, and it’s just a matter of time before the group breaks out for big yardage.
“We know what we’re capable of,” Lee said. “We know this isn’t us… we’re the ‘LawnBoyz.’ Every week I say we’re going to grow and get better, so it’s coming.”
Since his last visit to Kinnick as a true freshman, growing and getting better is just what Cain does on a daily basis, according to James Franklin.
But as he returns to Iowa as a junior, the numbers he put two years prior haven’t surfaced.
According to Franklin, the blame isn’t all on Cain but on the offense as a whole — it’s in need of a more balanced attack across the board and physicality up front.
Cain, who’s a year removed from a significant leg injury, has also shown some signs of being banged up throughout the 2021 season. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, according to Franklin, though.
“Everybody this time of the year, with the competition we've played, is working through things,” Franklin said. “Noah always approaches those things the right way. [He] lives in the training room, whether he's got a bump or a bruise or not, whether it's rehab or prehab — he's been great.”
Aside from Cain’s work on the field or in the weight room, quarterback Sean Clifford — who started beside him at Iowa in 2019 — acknowledged the leadership Cain possesses, a characteristic that serves an even greater purpose when the running backs as a whole are struggling.
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It feels like Penn State has already played in its fair share of big games less than halfway…
“He’s a leader in that room,” Clifford said. “Always has been, always will be.”
Like Cain, there are others who have blossomed into vocal leaders since 2019, and two in particular are PJ Mustipher and Jaquan Brisker.
In classic Penn State-versus-Iowa fashion, 2019’s matchup was a defensive showdown, the third-straight contest between the two teams decided by one score (2020 broke that streak).
Without the presence of Mustipher and Brisker, the game likely could have gone another direction.
On the defensive line, Mustipher put up likely the best single-game showing of his career to that point — racking up a then career-high seven tackles and forcing his first fumble of the season.
In the secondary, Brisker made the fourth-quarter interception that, eight plays later, set Cain up to take the ball to the endzone en route to Penn State’s victory.
Robert Windsor crushes Stanley forcing a bad pass and Jaquan Brisker is there for the interception pic.twitter.com/XTODLEqsyV— Ben Ferree (@BFerree_) October 13, 2019
Two years later, Mustipher and Brisker haven’t just evolved into vocal leaders, they’ve become some of the most dominant defensive players on the team — gaining steam as the 2022 NFL Draft approaches.
According to fifth-year cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, having players with experience winning in Iowa City serves the Nittany Lions an advantage.
“We’re all older now, we’re all mature, we have more games under our belt,” Castro-Fields said. “It's gonna be better for us just because we've been there, we’ve played in big moments and big games.”
For Castro-Fields, the “moment” is what drives the Nittany Lion defense to adjust through adversity and “sudden change.”
“When we’re in the red zone, we always try to capture the moment,” Castro-Fields said. “We never let the moment get too big.”
While a team can prepare to “capture the moment,” it may be difficult to “never let the moment get too big” when the moment may genuinely be that big.
Iowa is No. 3. Penn State is No. 4. They’d both be in the College Football Playoff if it started today.
Besides Beaver Stadium and The Big House at Michigan, it can very well be argued that the next-most electrifying venue in the Big Ten is Kinnick Stadium.
Castro-Fields and the Nittany Lion defense can try all they want to capture the moment, but when the Hawkeye fans are nearly breathing on your neck — as Kinnick’s design allows — that’s no easy environment to play in.
“It’s definitely a tough place to play, of course, because of how close [the fans] are to you,” Castro-Fields said. “I don’t know how much [Kinnick] fits, but they’re loud for that size of stadium.”
Despite the difficult atmosphere, Castro-Fields, like many others on Penn State’s roster, have played and won in Iowa City before.
However, the energy is nothing the blue and white seems worried about. All that matters is getting a win.
“It's definitely a place where every year that I get a chance to go there, I'm excited,” Castro-Fields said. “No matter where we play, our guys will be ready.”
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