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Raising Cain

Freshman rusher keys PSU offense

AP photo
Penn State running back Noah Cain, center, celebrates his touchdown during the second half of the team’s NCAA college football game against Iowa on Saturday in Iowa City, Iowa.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — Penn State learned a lot about itself and found some answers to lingering questions, while James Franklin finally pulled off a key achievement in his career.

The No. 10 Nittany Lions and No. 17 Iowa played another unglamorous slugfest Saturday night — typical for the series — and Penn State overcame some sloppy play and controversial calls by the officials to escape Kinnick Stadium with a 17-12 victory.

It marked Franklin’s first win over a ranked team in a true road game. He had been 0-11 in such games during his career, including 0-6 at Penn State.

“That’s exactly how we knew we’d have to play against this team,” Franklin said. “Against them, you’re going to have to earn it.”

The Lions (6-0, 3-0 Big Ten) led 10-6 and then appeared to seal the victory on a 5-yard TD run by Noah Cain with 5:17 remaining.

Iowa’s offense has struggled mightily of late, failing to reach the end zone for nearly eight full quarters. But the Hawkeyes put together an 87-yard drive in the closing minutes and got a 33-yard TD pass from Nate Stanley to Brandon Smith with 2:31 remaining.

That score pulled Iowa within 17-12, and the two-point conversion failed.

The Hawkeyes (4-2, 1-2) still had all three timeouts left, so Penn State wasn’t in the clear just yet. The Lions needed one first down to wrap things up, and they gave the ball to Cain three times for 12 yards to get that.

Cain finished with 102 yards rushing and one TD on 22 carries, establishing himself as the most effective tailback in Penn State’s four-man rotation at the position.

“He’s a downhill guy,” Franklin said. “He’s decisive, he protects the football. We’re happy with all four of (the tailbacks). He did a great job for us tonight. There’s no doubt about it.”

Sean Clifford had a rocky start, missing on his first five passes, and finished 12-of-24 for just 117 yards and one TD. But Clifford also ran for 52 yards and had important gains on QB sneaks to keep the chains moving and pick up good field position throughout the game.

The Lions finished with only 294 yards — less than Iowa’s 356 — but they did get 177 yards on the ground. That proved to be one of the big differences in the game, along with turnovers.

Iowa made things tough but just couldn’t match the Lions on either side of the ball.

“Penn State made it rough on us in some areas where we weren’t able to execute in some critical situations,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.

Penn State held a 7-6 lead at the half, and late in the third quarter, P.J. Mustipher forced a fumble that Jan Johnson recovered at the Iowa 16.

That set up a highly controversial scenario.

Clifford connected with tight end Pat Freiermuth on a pass over the middle that initially was ruled a touchdown. Officials reviewed it, and despite TV angles showing that the ball had crossed the goal line when Freiermuth’s knee went down, the TD call was overturned and the ball placed just shy of the goal line.

Penn State was called for holding on the next play, then another hold on the next play to find itself in a third-and-21 situation. Jake Pinegar eventually came on for a 33-yard field goal and 10-6 lead with 2:08 left in the third quarter.

A pool reporter requested an explanation from the officials about the replay reversal, but the request was denied because it was a judgment call.

The head of the Big Ten officiating crew was John O’Neil, who also called the controversial game against Ohio State in 2014 at Beaver Stadium. The Buckeyes scored 10 points on two plays that replay showed should not have been allowed and went on to beat the Lions in double-overtime, 31-24, on their way to the national championship.

Saturday, Penn State was flagged eight times for 80 yards, while Iowa had just one penalty for 5 yards. That and the overturned touchdown drew heavy scrutiny from Penn State fans on social media.

Early in the fourth quarter, Stanley was pressured by Robert Windsor and threw a pass that was picked by off Jaquan Brisker at the Iowa 34. With Cain leading the way, the Lions drove for a touchdown that gave them a 17-6 lead with 5:17 to go.

Stanley finished 25-of-43 for 286 yards, one TD and one interception. The Hawkeyes struggled running the ball, though, as they managed only 70 yards, forcing Stanley to have to do everything to move the offense.

“Our defense played really well,” Clifford said. “When we needed to run the ball, we ran the ball. I’m so proud of this team. This atmosphere was crazy. … I’m just happy we got the win.”

It was Penn State’s sixth consecutive victory over Iowa, going back to 2011, and third time in a row the Lions have won at Kinnick Stadium.

“It’s a tough place to play,” Franklin said. “You look over the last couple years, they’ve upset everybody here.

“We didn’t play like we have been playing in the first quarter. We got them calmed down after that. We played great complementary. We didn’t turn the ball over, we punted and played great field position.”

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