Then end up as the #3 unbeaten. Or so I told myself three years ago when Penn State lost to Michigan in the last seconds of a game they clearly could have won, since passing USC or Texas never would have happened. And having lived through 1994, I know of what I speak. But first things first: after today’s loss to the Hawkeyes, Penn State still needs to get by Indiana and Michigan State to avoid a repeat of 1999 and play in Pasadena.

One might like to mock ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg for his poor predictive powers, but his take on the first half was bullseye-accurate:

Don’t be fooled by the score. Penn State is in complete control after a lousy start at blustery Kinnick Stadium.

Sure, Iowa is within a touchdown and could come back to take the lead. But the Hawkeyes have shown little to suggest they can hang around with the Nittany Lions in the second half, particularly on offense.

After fumbling on its first drive, Penn State has executed a methodical game plan on offense, mixing different types of runs and various personnel to wear down a talented Iowa defensive front seven. It might not wow the people who need to be wowed, but this is the perfect game plan in these types of conditions (cold and windy)…

Here are the vitals on Penn State’s scoring drives:

* 19 plays, 71 yards, 9:43
* 11 plays, 75 yards, 5:02
* 16 plays, 78 yards, 8:18

Now two of those ended in field goals, and Penn State must be more effective in the red zone. But the system is working. Penn State holds a 23:34-6:26 edge in possession time and 47-15 in total plays.

ABC’s Brad Nessler even managed to get in a funny, noting that if Iowa had scripted its first 15 offensive plays (as is often common) they didn’t even get the chance to go off script until the second half.

It was a dominant performance, especially compared to, say, the first half of the Texas game. But you simply cannot dominate yet leave points on the field if you consider yourself championship material. And, well… you can’t do it on the road against a 5-4 team if you’re gonna play a lousy second half. Lots of little things (a penalty, a passed-up chance to go for two, an interception) cost PSU the game, but in a nutshell, they were not the better team for 60 minutes.

Unlike Iowa in the first half, Penn State’s defense was unable to bend-not-break in the fourth quarter. And while I’m not sure how much credit goes to Iowa and blame to Galen Hall, the Lions’ offense didn’t stick with what had worked so well in the first half: Repeated, albeit varied runs.

So, as ever, whether you’re a fan who didn’t want to see a Big 10 team on January 8 or a fan who feared Penn State would get shut out, it’s pointless to get too worked up until the season’s fully played. Though I suppose it’s possible that Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama, Texas Tech and USC will all lose in the next three weeks (hey, two of those teams will for sure).

Separate from the title game, Penn State really needs for Oregon State to drop a game along the way, or else they get a boring, no-win Rose Bowl rematch with a team they blew out in September (and the stubbornly tradition-bound Pasadena elders get what they deserve).