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OPINION: Has the Penn State vs. Iowa matchup reached rivalry status?

Penn State football wears its “unrivaled” moniker with pride. But has the bad blood between Penn State and Iowa reached rivalry status?



Penn State football, Iowa
Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher (97) is helped by a trainer after getting injured during a NCAA Big Ten Conference football game against Iowa, Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa beat Penn State, 23-20. 211009 Penn St Iowa Fb 046 Jpg
Editor’s note: This is an opinion piece and reflects the thoughts and opinions of the author.

When it comes to rivalries, Penn State football lives up to its own motto, “Unrivaled.” The Big Ten even agreed when it released the 2024-2025 conference schedules and made the Nittany Lions the only team without a protected rivalry game. Rivalries form in a few ways in college football. Geographic proximity is one, while competitiveness is another. Iowa has its chief rivals of Iowa State, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Conventionally, Penn State would not really be considered a rival of the Hawkeyes. However, the competitive nature of the series, along with some heartbreaking losses for both sides, has organically created a budding rivalry between the two programs.

Iowa has caused plenty of heartbreak for Penn State

Penn State football and Iowa met nine times predating the Nittany Lions’ arrival into the Big Ten in 1993. Penn State won six of those nine contests. Since Big Ten play, though, the teams are even at 11 wins a piece.

Of the Big Ten West foes, Penn State has met Iowa and Illinois the most. The series with the Hawkeyes has been more evenly matched compared to the series with the Illini, which has been dominated by Penn State.

My student years occurred in the early 2000s, otherwise known as the “Dark Years” of Penn State football. Penn State faced off against Iowa all four of my years as a student. Unfortunately, all four were losses. The 2002 game at Beaver Stadium ended in overtime with Joe Paterno running down the head referee after the game to show his displeasure at some missed calls. The 2004 season brought the infamous “6-4” game. Sitting through both of those in the student section was pure agony.

The 2008 season saw Penn State enter the game at Kinnick Stadium 9-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country. The game ended on an Iowa field goal, ending the Nittany Lions’ shot for a national championship with a huge gut punch.

The following year was supposed to be revenge for Penn State. On a rain-soaked White Out night, with myself in attendance, it was another frustrating gut-wrenching 21-10 loss.

Nittany Lions turn things around

Iowa had won eight of the last nine contests, and the Hawkeyes seemed to be an enigma the Nittany Lions could not figure out. Then finally, a breakthrough came, with Penn State football winning six in a row from 2011 through 2019. A couple of dominating wins in 2012 and 2016 were nice, but the 2017 victory was the most thrilling.

Hawkeyes have made it personal

Then came the 2021 contest in Iowa City. Both teams were ranked in the top five. The Nittany Lions were leading 17-3 in the second quarter and controlling the game when Sean Clifford got knocked out of the contest. The Nittany Lions lost a few other key players, including defensive tackle PJ Mustipher. Penn State ended up falling to the Hawkeyes 23-20.

Iowa fans booed several Penn State injuries during the game, believing they were faking. Kirk Ferentz addressed the booing later in the week after the game, saying the fans thought they “smelled a rat”. This guy also became internet famous.

So, all of this has led to this year’s contest in Happy Valley. For the first time since that 2009 game, the Hawkeyes are about to get the White Out treatment. There are still several players from that 2021 team on the Penn State football roster today. You can imagine James Franklin will not let his team forget the 2021 loss.

For all those heartbreaking losses I personally sat through at Beaver Stadium, and for the 2021 mockery of our injured players, this one is personal. Iowa may not be Penn State’s rival in a traditional sense, but Nittany Nation wants this game badly on Saturday night. Hope Penn State hangs a hundred on the Hawkeyes.

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Shane has been a Penn State fan since he attended his first game in Beaver Stadium when he was 8 years old. A Class of 2005 alum, he has been a contributing writer for Victory Bell Rings, Saturday Blitz and now Basic Blues Nation. He also hosts The Nittany and Badger: A Big Ten Football Podcast. Shane lives near Pittsburgh with his wife and son.


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