JULIANO: Anatomy of touchdown drive that saved Penn State's football season

Philly.com (TNS)
  • Penn State scored on the game's final play to beat Iowa on Saturday night, 21-19.
  • The winning score came on a 7-yard pass from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson.
  • The win kept No. 4 Penn State unbeaten on the season at 4-0.

IOWA CITY, Iowa – The deafening crowd at Kinnick Stadium smelled another Iowa upset of a top-five team at home. Down four points, Penn State needed to go 80 yards in 1 minute, 36 seconds. Nothing short of a touchdown would do.

Doubt? What doubt?

Penn State wide receiver Juwan Johnson (84) celebrates alongside teammates after catching a touchdown pass as time expired to defeat Iowa an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Iowa City, Iowa.

“Two minutes, two timeouts, get in the end zone. It was that simple,” running back Saquon Barkley said late Saturday night after the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions (4-0, 1-0 Big Ten) did the deed, a 7-yard pass from Trace McSorley to Juwan Johnson as time ran out, and then left town with a 21-19 victory over the Hawkeyes.

“We work on that every week. We got that from old situations that we had in the past last year – Rose Bowl, Wisconsin (in the Big Ten championship game), all the two-minute situations that we’ve been in before.”

Barkley, who achieved career highs with 211 rushing yards and 12 receptions, and piled up 358 all-purpose yards to break Curt Warner’s 36-year-old program record, was a key part of the final drive with two catches and a big blitz pickup on the last play when he kept linebacker Josey Jewell away from his quarterback.

The Hawkeyes (3-1, 0-1) had taken a 19-15 lead on Akrum Wadley’s 35-yard run with 1:42 remaining and sensed that they would defeat a top-five opponent at home for the third straight time. After Miles Sanders returned the ensuing kickoff to the 20, the Lions went to work – with confidence.

“We’re going to find a way to gut it out and grind it out,” head coach James Franklin said. “Fortunately we had those two timeouts at the end of the game, and we were able to make some plays moving the ball down the field and kept our poise. We work on that every single day in practice. The most important thing is that our guys believe.”

After getting a first down on the initial play of the drive, McSorley faced a critical situation early on, a fourth and 2 from the Penn State 40 that was converted on the junior’s bullet pass to Saeed Blacknall at the 46.

“Saeed made a tremendous fourth-down catch to keep the chains moving,” said McSorley, who went 7 of 11 for 68 yards on the decisive march.

McSorley moved them again on three consecutive plays, racing up the middle with no receiver open and gaining 12 yards, then completing passes of 18 yards to Johnson and 14 yards to Barkley for a first-and-goal from the Iowa 10 with 15 seconds to play.

A quick sideline out to tight end Mike Gesicki gained 3, but incompletions to DeAndre Thompkins and DaeSean Hamilton left the Lions with fourth and goal from the Hawkeyes 7 with 4 seconds remaining. Franklin took his final timeout to talk it over.

“Coming down to that last play, it was now or never,” said McSorley, who finished 31 of 48 for 284 yards. “Everyone in the huddle was saying, ‘Hey guys, we got this, we got this. Don’t panic. We’re going to score a touchdown. We’re going to get in the end zone.’ That’s kind of the mentality that we’re rolling with.”

McSorley looked into the end zone and saw Johnson, the former Glassboro High School star, come in from the right on a post pattern. Hamilton was running the same pattern from the left, standing a yard behind Johnson in the end zone at the time of the pass. McSorley fired, and Johnson caught it for the touchdown as the air went out of the state of Iowa.

“I couldn’t believe it happened. It was like a dream,” Johnson said of his first career touchdown.

The Nittany Lions had the pulsating victory, and Barkley moved to the forefront of the Heisman Trophy conversation. But he was too happy about the Lions’ comeback to even think about awards.

“I was just so proud of our two-minute drive,” he said. “People that appreciate football, that was a clinic.”