Lionizing Penn State. And wondering about Dantonio and Riley.

AN IOU IN IOWA

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For the longest time, Penn State’s visit to Iowa had all the excitement of a slog through mud. The Nittany Lions managed yards but not points. And the Hawkeyes were simply inoffensive.

But what a finish.

Previously dormant Iowa put up two impressive fourth-quarter touchdowns, taking an improbable 19-15 lead—and enhancing the credentials of new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, who just might succeed his father as Iowa coach someday.

And then, in the final 1:42, Trace McSorley engineered a comeback drive for the ages, capped off by a seven-yard TD pass to Juwan Johnson on the game’s last play for a dramatic 21-19 escape.

If the Hawkeyes realize their dream of an unbeaten season and all the glory that goes with that, they’ll point to that moment.

Oh, and by the way, Saquon Barkley contributed 358 yard (211 rushing, 94 receiving, 53 returning), raising this question: Exactly who is Penn State’s best Heisman bet? Just to be clear, Barkley is making all the right moves.

I’m not enough of an authority to rank Penn State wins, but I will tell you this: The Nittany Lions’ ability to shine under the lights at Nile Kinnick Stadium, reminded me of one of Penn State’s finest comebacks, a 35-31 win at Illinois on Nov. 12, 1994. I covered that game, and it was as good as it gets.[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]

After falling behind 21-0, the Nittany Lions buckled up and came back against a very good Illinois defense led by Kevin Hardy and Simeon Rice, who would be the second and third selections in the 1996 NFL draft.

That, too, was a highly anticipated game, a late-afternoon start that was pretty much played under the lights on a drab November day. My favorite pre-game observation came from my dear friend, Champaign News-Gazette legend Loren Tate, who’s the Grantland Rice of Central Illinois.

In his game advance, Tate noted that media had come from ``far-flung outposts such as Los Angeles and New York,’’ or something like that, to see if Penn State could remain unbeaten.

The Nittany Lions did, but they needed two epic touchdown drives, a 99-yarder followed by the final blow, a 96-yarder that netted the winning TD with 57 seconds left.

One other footnote: Penn State went unbeaten in 1994, but finished second in the polls to Nebraska, which won the Orange Bowl while the Nittany Lions won the Rose Bowl.

That was a major factor in the Big Ten’s decision to lead the way for the Big Ten/Pac-12/Rose Bowl troika to abandon its mutual admiration society and join the rest of the NCAA world to ensure that the nation’s top teams settled their differences on the field, rather than leave that up to voters.

This Penn State victory at Iowa isn’t nearly that momentous. But it’s a pretty dadgum good September win.

WHAT’S UP WITH IOWA

Say this for Iowa: It’s really good at handling visits by top-five teams. The Hawkeyes, you may recall, surprised No. 3 Michigan 14-13 last Nov. 12.

That Iowa team finished 8-5, though, including a loss to FCS North Dakota State.

What are we to make of this Iowa team?

It nudges past inconsistent-so-far Northwestern as the chief threat to Big Ten West favorite Wisconsin. But that isn’t saying much, and that will sort itself out this Saturday, when the Wildcats travel to Wisconsin.

Hats off to the Hawkeyes for a stellar and pesky performance. But Penn State outgained them, 579 to 273. Which is not what you’d call an excellent indicator of future results.

ET TU, DANTONIO?

Everybody agrees that Mark Dantonio is an excellent coach and fine man who has done marvelous things at Michigan State.

So why am I thinking that they’ll show him the door sooner than later?

Here’s the point: Dantonio did a fine job when Michigan and Penn State were in disarray, and when Urban Meyer was still putting the finishing touches on what is now a well-oiled Buckeye machine.

And Michigan State appears headed for a hell of a duel for fourth place in the Big Ten East with Indiana.

I didn’t come here to bury Dantonio. But it wouldn’t surprise me if people start doing that very soon—if they haven’t already.

From 2010 to 2015, Dantonio went 65-16, played in a slew of big bowls and finished in the top 15 five times.

After a shocking 3-9 meltdown last year and a not-shocking 38-18 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, it’s possible the Spartan will lose as many games in two seasons as they lost in the previous six.

More importantly, where are you going to go in the Big Ten East, a world populated by the three-headed monster of Penn State/Ohio State/Michigan?

Dantonio has had a magical run in East Lansing.

But it’s difficult to see the path back to greatness.

It’s not difficult to see the Land of Green and White getting restless.

LIFE (SUPPORT) OF RILEY

You don’t have to be a football coach to know that it’s not a good sign when the guy who hired you is fired.

And so, when Nebraska athletic director Shawn Eichorst was fired last Thursday, that raised the obvious question: Can Mike Riley be far behind?

We can all agree that Riley is a fine man, and fine coach. Barring a sudden change, he’s also a fish out of water in Nebraska, where there is no water.

It’s bad enough that Riley’s crew is not playing defense-first, smash-mouth football. A shootout win over Arkansas State (43-36) was followed by a shootout loss at Oregon (42-35).

But a just-shoot-me 21-17 loss to Northern Illinois? Five days later, Eichorst was gone.

You don’t have to be a cabinet-level official to surmise that the grand poo-bahs in the land of Cornhuskers don’t want Eichorst hiring their next football coach.

Maybe Riley can engineer a turnaround in Lincoln this fall. But more likely, he can’t. The winds of change are blowing.

As I mentioned here a couple of weeks back, Riley in Nebraska is like a Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. And they know about eclipses in Nebraska.

I like Mike Riley’s style. He coaches ’em up without all the pomposity. And he does it well enough. He had good but not great success at Oregon State. And even if you like his two Grey Cups—I do—the statute of limitations on Canadian Football championships has run out in Omaha.

Point is, if Riley is asked to go have a sandwich with Eichorst, Nebraska needs to find a guy who does it the way Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne did it.

They found local lads and molded them into stout linemen and hard-nosed defenders. And they reached into places like Texas and California for skill guys.

What I would suggest is that the Cornhuskers new athletic director should call Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez, who played for Devaney, and ask for coaching candidates. I’m guessing that the people who will hire the new athletic director already have Alvarez on speed-dial. (They still have speed-dial in Nebraska.)

The recruiting model has changed a bit with Nebraska’s move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten. Maybe the Cornhuskers need to look at different turf.

But that’s not as big a deal as finding an old-school coach who fits the Nebraska mold. Or simply finding a young firebrand who’s shrewd enough to deliver.

Nebraska is one of those birthright places. They may be a tad more low-keyed about it than fans in Columbus or Tuscaloosa or Austin. But they expect to win, just as sure as they expect a good steak.

Trouble is, the meat’s been tough to chew lately.[/membership]

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