IOWA CITY – Beyond the sting of a last-second loss, Saturday’s 21-19 setback to fourth-rated Penn State provides the Iowa football team with a lesson-filled opportunity for growth.

“It’s tough to look at it that way right now because you never want to lose, but I think we’ll find plenty of things from this game that will help us down the road,’’ quarterback Nate Stanley said.

One of eight Hawkeyes who made their first start in a Big Ten game in the conference-opening match-up against the defending league champions, Iowa’s sophomore quarterback said the ability to dissect the good and the bad, harness those things and put them to work moving ahead will only help.

Saturday wasn’t the first time Stanley had found himself on the difficult end of a last-second decision.

“A couple of times in high school it happened, and all you can do is figure out what worked, what didn’t and move on,’’ Stanley said. “The way we fought, the way we competed to the end against one of the best teams in the country, it tells us how good we can be.’’

Stanley figures the Hawkeyes must learn from their slow start as well.

Iowa mustered just 54 yards of offense and three first downs in the first half and needed an interception in the final minute of the second quarter to set up a quick score which left the Hawkeyes in front 7-5 at halftime.

The good?

“We kept the momentum going off of the turnover with the big play right away, which is what we always hope to do,’’ Stanley said.

The bad?

“It took us too much time to get going on offense. We can’t do that against anybody, much less a team like Penn State,’’ Stanley said. “We found a rhythm in the second half, did some good things but we have to start faster than that.’’

Stanley completed 8-of-10 passes in the second half following a 5-for-12 start, spreading the ball to six receivers and averaging a respectable 14.7 yards per completion.

Coach Kirk Ferentz felt like Iowa’s offense “played faster’’ than it should have in the first half, but liked how the Hawkeyes took the game into the fourth quarter.

“The idea is to be there in the fourth quarter, regardless of how you do it,’’ he said. “… They’ve got a really prolific offense and they execute it well, but our guys kept battling and that gave us a chance to win the football game.’’

Ferentz said the experience should give the Hawkeyes an idea of what it takes to win in the Big Ten as it works to build on its 3-1 start.

“Both teams competed about as hard as you possibly can. There were a lot of different swings in the game, certainly in the last two drives, both teams executed really well down the stretch,’’ Ferentz said. “We’re disappointed with the loss, it’s going to hurt for a while, but we’ll move on.’’

The Hawkeyes have little choice, preparing now to face a Michigan State team trying to do the same in this Saturday’s 3 p.m. game in East Lansing, Michigan.

The Spartans turned the ball over three times in the first half, leading to 21 points and a 28-7 halftime lead for Notre Dame in Saturday’s 38-18 victory.

“You have to get ready for the next one, and you have to learn from this one,’’ said Akrum Wadley, whose 80 rushing yards and 75 receiving yards including touchdowns on a 70-yard pass play and 35-yard carry in the fourth quarter.

Wadley said the Hawkeyes had invested a lot of energy in preparing for and playing against Penn State.

He liked the team’s fight, but to be part of a game decided by a touchdown pass caught in traffic as time expired by Penn State’s Juwan Johnson didn’t make the final outcome any easier to accept.

“When you lose on the last play like that, it reminds you of how valuable every snap is,’’ defensive end Parker Hesse said. “You think back to one play you should have or could have made and that’s the difference.’’

Hesse said the Hawkeyes cannot afford to let it linger.

“This one is going to sting, … but Sunday night you’re going to have to flush it regardless of how you feel about it,’’ he said. “We have to start preparing for Michigan State next Saturday. They’re not going to care how we feel about this game.’’