In 2008, a very good Penn State team that was coming off a bye week traveled to Kinnick Stadium and could not, try as it might, put away a gritty but inferior group of Iowa Hawkeyes. A tipped-ball interception here, a controversial pass interference call there, and the Nittany Lions could only watch as Daniel Murray's game-winning field goal tumbled through the uprights to hand them their first loss of the regular season.
Bill O'Brien intends to stay on the attack when Penn State visits Iowa.
It is a very different group of Nittany Lions led by a very different coaching staff that invades Kinnick this Saturday night. Once again, they'll take on an Iowa team that might not be as talented but is definitely good enough to beat them. Should the Nittany Lions fall, though, it is unlikely it will be the same way they've stumbled in big conference road games the last few years.
Rarely an aggressive play-caller under any circumstances, Joe Paterno got very conservative in hostile environments. He had in his lineup in that 2008 visit to Iowa a first-team Big Ten quarterback (Daryll Clark) and three of the top five all-time pass-catchers in school history (Deon Butler, Jordan Norwood and Derrick Williams), yet the Nittany Lions ran the ball 46 times against an Iowa defense whose strength was in the front seven and threw it just 24 times (It should be pointed out that Clark, who had to deal with cold, windy conditions, might have not been fully recovered from a concussion suffered two weeks earlier, which may have influenced the strategy).
Paterno tried to win that game the same way he had knocked off a strong Ohio State squad 13-6 in Columbus two weeks earlier -- letting the defense and kicking game rein in the opposition and let the offense control the ball and the clock. But the Nittany Lions had to settle for field goals early in the game and couldn't make big plays late, and it cost them a shot to play for a national title.
Four years later, Iowa's Kirk Ferentz has another Kirk Ferentz team -- a pocket quarterback who relies on smarts and play-action to succeed, a blue-collar offensive line and an offense that is at its best with a power running game. All backed by a tough, stubborn defense that is playing as well as any in the country right now.
Ferentz had no problem with Paterno playing tight, conservative football. Ferentz prefers a similar brand and it worked nearly to perfection against the Nittany Lions during the last few years. Iowa has won eight of the last 10 games against Penn State, including a 6-4 win in Beaver Stadium in 2004 that remains an equal source of misery for Penn State fans and pride for Iowa fans.
If he's looked at any Penn State game tape this season, Ferentz knows he won't be able to expect the same on Saturday.
Bill O'Brien's Nittany Lions have been anything but conservative on offense. Yes, Penn State has run the ball more times (234) than it has thrown it (229) this season, but O'Brien is never far from opening the throttle, whether it's going for it on 4th-and-5 at midfield or turning to his fast-paced "NASCAR" package. You get the feeling he would shudder if he watched tape of the 6-4 game, where Paterno, had the scores been reversed, would have likely relished a two-point win.
So while O'Brien's team -- like the 2008 squad, fresh off a bye week -- knows to expect a stiff challenge from an Iowa defense that's made of much stronger stuff than the defenses of Illinois and Northwestern, the players also know that the rowdy fans at Kinnick haven't seen a Penn State offense like this yet, either.
"It won't be a low-scoring game," vowed quarterback Matt McGloin this week. "We're going to be very confident in our offense and our ability to put up points, and Iowa has an experienced quarterback and should be able to put up some points. … It's going to be a great hard-fought football game. I don't think it'll be too low-scoring just because everybody will be juiced up. You have to score to win in this game."
For Penn State fans, the fun of this season has been watching the way O'Brien has attacked his Big Ten rivals. His Nittany Lions have been far from perfect but the style with which they play has given many hope for the future. And the players themselves, especially the veterans who know exactly what it takes to survive in places like Kinnick and Ohio Stadium, have fully embraced that style.
"The way that we see it is we're really fortunate to have the staff we have right now," offensive tackle Mike Farrell said. "Whether we're in there for a day of practice or a day of lifting, we feel fortunate to have those guys. It's been a great experience."