WHO: #10 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0 B1G)
WHEN: Saturday, October 12, 2019
WHERE: Kinnick Stadium (Iowa City, IA)
KICKOFF: 6:30 PM Central
RADIO: Hawkeye Sports Network (check local listings); TuneIn
ODDS: Penn State -3.5
WEATHER: highs in the upper 40s, partly cloudy, 8-9 mph winds
Penn State leads the all-time series with Iowa 16-12, with a 10-9 edge since joining the Big Ten in 1993. Iowa had great success against Penn State in the Aughts -- they won five straight against Penn State from 2000 to 2004 and took eight of nine from PSU between 2000 and 2010. Alas, the series has swung back in PSU's favor since Joe Paterno retired in 2011; they've won the last five games in the series, including blowout wins in 2012 and 2016. The last two games, in 2017 and 2018, both featured agonizingly close losses for Iowa. Good times!
PENN STATE SEASON RECAP
Penn State is 5-0 and has used that unbeaten mark to climb inside the Top 10 in the most recent polls. While they've produced some gaudy stats through the first month and a half of the season, they haven't really been tested yet. Their two Big Ten wins came against their perennial punching bag, Maryland, and an injury-ravaged Purdue squad. Their best non-conference win was over perpetually unreliable Pitt, and featured PSU hanging on by the skin of their teeth for a 17-10 win. Saturday's game against Iowa is, by far, their biggest test of the season thus far.
PENN STATE OFFENSE
Penn State has been putting up gaudy stats on both sides of the ball, but let's hit the offense first. They're averaging 47.0 ppg, fifth best in the nation and they've cleared 45+ in three of their five wins this year. They've been good in both the passing game and the run game, with a slight edge through the air. Penn State is averaging 305.6 passing yards per game (19th best nationally), with a collective passer rating of 171.68 (14th), an overall completion percentage of 65.8% (29th), and a sizzling 9.7 yards per attempt average (11th). They've also thrown 13 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
Junior Sean Clifford is the triggerman for the PSU offense, going 90/135 (66.7%) for 1443 yards (10.7 yards per attempt), 12 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions. He's leading the Big Ten in passing yards per game (288.6) and his 182.83 passer rating is third in the conference. He's also a capable threat on the ground with 43 carries for 200 yards and two touchdowns, although he's less likely to tuck the ball and run than his predecessor, Trace McSorley. Clifford's top targets in the passing game have been junior receiver KJ Hamler (19 receptions, 394 yards, 4 touchdowns), sophomore receiver Jahan Dotson (12 receptions, 242 yards, 3 touchdowns), and sophomore tight end Pat Freiermuth (15 receptions, 178 yards, 3 touchdowns). Hamler (5-9, 176) is small, but a multi-faceted weapon out of the slot like Purdue's Rondale Moore; accounting for him every play will be a must. Dotson (5-11, 175) is another big play threat with the speed to take the top off a defense.
As alluded to earlier, Penn State has also been pretty potent running the ball -- they're averaging 194 yards per game on the ground (43rd nationally), with a 5.16 yards per carry average that ranks 29th. Their 17 rushing touchdowns ranks sixth nationally. Journey Brown (5-11, 206) is the latest potent running back in their attack, with 31 carries for 217 yards (7 ypc) and three touchdowns. Freshman Noah Cain (5-10, 206) leads the running backs in carries (35) and has 208 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. Freshman Devyn Ford (5-11, 194) is the third head of their three-headed running back monster and he has 26 carries for 198 yards and two touchdowns. Like Iowa, Penn State is going with a time-share at RB this year and Iowa figures to see several different backs in this game; the bad news is that they all look pretty damn good.
Penn State has been very good at protecting their quarterback this year -- just 7 sacks allowed (23rd best nationally). They've also been potent in the red zone with 22 scores in 23 trips (a 95.65% conversion rate that's 9th nationally). 18 of those 22 scores have been touchdowns, which puts them among the Top 15 nationally. Finally, Penn State has been good at pulling off big plays this year -- they have 15 plays of 30+ yards (26th nationally), 12 of which have gone for 40+ yards (7th nationally), and 8 of those have gone for 50+ yards (4th nationally). Preventing chunk plays like that is vital for a bend-don't-break defense like Iowa's.
PENN STATE DEFENSE
Penn State: also very good at defense! The Nittany Lions are giving up just 7.4 points per game, which ranks 2nd nationally (Iowa is third, incidentally, at 8.8 points per game). They're also fourth nationally in total defense (240.4 yards per game) and their 3.6 yards per play average is 2nd best nationally (behind only Wisconsin). Offenses have neither been moving the ball against Penn State nor finding ways to score points on them.
Their run defense has been especially stout: they're allowing just 50.6 yards per game (3rd) and 1.46 yards per carry (1st) this season, including just one rushing touchdown. Iowa struggled mightily to run the ball on Michigan and it doesn't look like it's going to get any easier against Penn State. Only one team has topped 60 yards rushing against them -- Buffalo, who had 184 yards in Week 2. It took them 58 (!) carries to get that, though, which works out to a middling 3.17 yards per carry average. That's a real grind.
By comparison, their pass defense has been less of a brick wall. They're conceding 189.9 yards per game through the air (28th), though opponents have a collective passer rating of 107.83 (13th) against them. Opponents' collective 57.1% completion percentage (37th) isn't much better and the 5.9 yards per attempt they're conceding is 11th best nationally. Overall, teams have three touchdowns and four interceptions against them. Not surprisingly, teams are struggling to convert third downs against Penn State -- they're making just 21/83 (25.3%) of those tries.
Penn State has also been ferocious when it comes to sacks and tackles for loss. They have 25 sacks through five games this year, which ranks 6th nationally. They've had at least three sacks in every game this year except the Buffalo game (1 sack) and they're coming off a game against Purdue in which they had 10 (!) sacks. That's alarming for an Iowa team that just gave up 8 sacks to Michigan. Penn State has also been lethal at tackles for loss; they have 52 so far this year, 3rd best nationally. The only area where Penn State hasn't been especially great on defense is in forcing turnovers; they've forced just seven total (four interceptions, three fumble recoveries).
PSU's linebacker trio of Micah Parsons, Cam Brown, and Jan Johnson is leading the team in tackles with 27, 24, and 23, respectively. Yetuh Gross-Matos (5.5) and Shaka Toney (5.0) have been pacing the team in terms of sacks. Seven players have at least 3.0 tackles for loss so far this season, led by Gross-Matos with 7.5 and Parsons with 6.0. (Toney has 5.5 as well.) DB John Reid leads the team with two interceptions; he's also tied for the team lead in passes broken up with four.
MATCH-UP TO WATCH
Given the stats -- and what happened last week to Iowa against Michigan -- it has to be the battle in the trenches between Iowa's offensive line and Penn State's defensive line. Iowa decisively lost that battle last week; if they do so again in this game, they'll lose the game -- and probably much worse than by the 10-3 margin of the Michigan game. Iowa may scheme to include more tight ends or full backs to help with pass protection and Brian Ferentz would be wise to try and exploit the aggressiveness of PSU's defense in his playcalling -- we might see more screens or quick slants to get the ball out of Stanley's hands quickly before the PSU pass rush can get to him -- but ultimately the biggest issue may be just whether or not Iowa's offensive linemen can play better than they did last week. They got whipped by Michigan; if they can use that humbling experience as motivation for this game and produce a much better effort, Iowa could have a shot in this game. If they struggle again, it's hard to see a way Iowa wins this game.
WHAT WE WANT TO SEE
A win under the lights. That's it.
Obviously, my preference in always to pick Iowa to prevail in this section and more often than not I'm able to (I think) find some reasonable path to victory for the Hawkeyes. That's pretty hard to do with this game, though. PSU's biggest strengths on defense are taking away the run game and getting after the passer; Iowa struggles to win when they can't run the ball and Nate Stanley struggles a lot when he's under pressure. The reasons to pick this game are based almost entirely on the intangibles -- home field, a night game, a strong atmosphere, Iowa being motivated to bounce back after last week's loss -- but those can only carry you so far. I can't shake what I saw from Iowa last week -- or what Penn State has done all season, either. They have a ferocious defense and an offense that's adept at big plays. I hope we get some Kinnick Magic on Saturday night, but I expect more disappointment in that regard.
PENN STATE 24, IOWA 14