Turnaround day in November is Sports Story of the Year


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Nov. 8, 2008, will be engraved in the mind of anyone associated with Iowa football.

Our choice for the DI’s Story of the Year had the elements of a Hollywood script — frigid weather, a powerhouse opponent, a game decided in the final seconds, derailed dreams, a hometown hero, pandemonium, overly enthusiastic sportswriters.

The Hawkeyes were coming off a disheartening 27-24 loss at Illinois the week before, which left Iowa 5-4 overall, 2-3 in the Big Ten.

The loss added to a lengthy list of narrow defeats the Hawkeyes had suffered going back to the 2005 season.

“We played a really poor game at Illinois,” Iowa Sports Information Director Phil Haddy said. “The first three quarters, we played really poorly. We came back. We could have won the game. They win it on a field goal in the last minute.”

The Nittany Lions were 9-0 after a 13-6 win over Ohio State two weeks before. Led by legendary head coach Joe Paterno, Penn State possessed a high-octane offense, leading the Big Ten in 10 different offensive categories and averaging nearly 42 points per contest.

The Nittany Lions seemed confident heading into Iowa City, basking in the glow of the BCS hype it had received.

“The mindset of Paterno and the players that week was just on Iowa, and that was pretty much the case throughout the season,” said Josh Langenbacher, who covered the Nittany Lions for The Daily Collegian during the 2008 season. “They had excellent leadership that kept the team focused and grounded.”

On the Iowa campus, the hype surrounding this game had escalated a few weeks before. After Iowa running back Shonn Greene rushed for 217 yards and four touchdowns against Wisconsin on Oct. 18, an idea took on life — a “Greene Out.”

The plan was simple: The members of the student section in Kinnick Stadium would dress in green as a sign of support for the Hawkeye back. It initially had mixed reviews, especially because the planning began before the Hawkeyes’ game at Illinois. Greene himself was originally against it, because he saw the event as taking attention away from the team.

But days before the Penn State game, the Iowa athletics department caught on to the idea and came up with a stadium “Blackout” to complement the student sections’ “Greene Out.”

“It becomes infectious,” Haddy said. “Whenever the student body gets full board behind a team, people may underestimate it, but it makes a big difference in the enthusiasm of the game, and quite frankly, on how the team performs on the field.”

One of those students who took part in the Greene Out was UI sophomore Conor Dwyer, a member of the Iowa men’s swimming team.

“We saw some cool T-shirts, so I and some of the other swimmers bought them at the tailgate,” he said.

On the day of the game, it was chilly — 38 degrees, with winds gusting at 25 mph. By kickoff, the atmosphere was electric. Mixed with black-and-gold was the mass of green. As the Hawkeye Marching Band performed the national anthem, F-18s flew over.

“I was in awe for a couple of seconds there,” freshman sousaphone player Joey Ackerman said. “It just shocked me.”

Traditionally, Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz opts to receive the opening kickoff whenever the Hawkeyes win the coin toss. Given the windy conditions, he deferred until the second half.

Penn State began with the ball deep in its own territory, against the wind, and came out with three-straight pass plays: three and out. The Nittany Lions, an offensive juggernaut, were forced to punt.

“One of the things that really stood out right from the get-go was how Penn State always tried to go over the top to show that the wind wasn’t going to be a factor, when realistically, you knew it had to be a factor to some degree,” Langenbacher said.

On the Hawkeyes’ opening possession, Iowa gave Penn States defense a strong dose of Greene, and the eventual Doak Walker Award winner rammed into the end zone to give the Hawkeyes an early 7-0 lead — a touchdown in front of the student section’s sea of green.

After the game, with an obvious change of heart, he said he felt the students’ energy.

“I think [Greene Out] was a great idea,” he said.

After that early lead, though, the Iowa offense struggled to move the ball, and Penn State continued to chew more and more clock with each possession. The Nittany Lions led, 13-7, at halftime — although, having possessed the football for nearly 80 percent of the first half, Penn State could have had a larger lead.

Late in the fourth quarter, Penn State led, 23-21, with an opportunity to deal the Hawkeyes a killing blow, which might have sealed the Nittany Lions’ bid for playing for the national title.

But Iowa defensive back Tyler Sash intercepted a Daryll Clark pass, giving Iowa 3:46 to pull off an upset. The Hawkeye offense marched down to the Penn State 14-yard line, and the coaching staff made one of its biggest decisions of the season.

Two months earlier, sophomore kicker Daniel Murray was benched after missing two field goals against Pittsburgh. But for perhaps the biggest field goal in Kinnick Stadium since Rob Houghtlin’s game-winner against Michigan in 1985, Ferentz elected to go with Murray instead of freshman Trent Mossbrucker, the regular kicker.

Paterno, who coached the game from the Kinnick Stadium press box, called a time-out to try to ice Murray, and the Iowa City native paced alone.

“I was nervous until I got on the field,” he said after the game. “Once I got on the field, I was like, ‘There’s no turning back now.’ ”

With the wind at his back, Murray kicked a 31-yard field goal with one second remaining. Fans began swarming the field, albeit prematurely. After Iowa’s kickoff coverage kept Penn State from pulling off a miracle, celebration quickly followed.

Finally, Iowa had won a close game. And the Hawkeyes had become bowl-eligible. Jubilation ensued on the Kinnick Stadium turf, and heartbreak reigned for Penn State. Much like the Nittany Lions’ 2005 season, in which a last-second Michigan touchdown killed Penn State’s hopes of perfection, one play denied the Lions a possible national-title bid.

“[Daryll Clark] bowed his head. His eyes were red, he was crying,” Langenbacher said. “At one point, he said, ‘I’d just like to apologize to Nittany Nation for letting everyone down today.’ ”

This season, both teams are among the Big Ten elite, and the Sept. 26 meeting in State College is a marquee event. Last month, officials announced the game would kick off at 7 p.m. CDT and would air on either ABC or ESPN.

Penn State has decided the game will be its annual “White Out” contest; the Hawkeyes will face a Beaver Stadium with more than 100,000 fans clad in white.

“It will be under the most trying circumstances probably ever in going to Penn State,” Haddy said. “They’ll be ready for us.

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