After a big win over Michigan State, I think everyone is feeling a lot better. Iowa tied atop the Legends Division, a bowl game no longer looks out of reach, and an 8-win season is now back on the table. But all these good feeling could quickly change if Iowa loses tomorrow. So let's look at Iowa's keys to beating Penn State.
Get stops on 4th down
Bill O'Brien is in an unprecedented situation. There's no doubt that he's in one of the toughest positions of any coach in the country right now. We all know the reasons. But he also has some unique advantages built into his situation.
He has Kirk Ferentz like job security. His team had little to no expectations entering the year. There is no bowl or post game to play for. For these reason, Bill O'Brien doesn't have to worry about blowing a game due to a bad coaching decision. It's not going to upset his AD. It's not going to cost his team a shot at the B1G title or a bowl game in Florida. O'Brien can basically do whatever he wants. And what he wants to do is go for it on 4th down.
It's been talked about a lot this past week, but let's rehash it. Penn State has gone for it 20 times on fourth down and converted 13. Only Army has attempted more 4th downs and only Louisiana-Monroe has converted more. No team in the B1G has even attempted to go for it 13 times on 4th down. Just for comparison, Iowa has gone for it 7 times. When Penn State played Northwestern 2 weeks ago, the Nittany Lions were 5 of 6 on 4th down conversions and those 5 conversions led to 25 points.
A big reason O'Brien elects to go for it is that his kickers are terrible. Penn State is dead last in the country in net punting and their place kicker is 3 of 9 on field goals.
It can be assured Kinnick will get loud on 4th downs and Iowa's defense will need to feed off that energy to get stops. However, those 4th downs go could really swing momentum one way or another. And anything that helps spark the offense is a huge win.
Win on special teams
As mentioned, Penn State's kicking game is a mess. Iowa needs to take advantage of this. Jordan Cotton's kick return for an almost TD last week sparked the offense a little and got Iowa back in the game. Mike Meyer, who I wrote about earlier this week, has been absolutely fantastic and I have little doubt he'll perform when his name is called.
So that leads to punting. If this game is the defense slugfest I think it'll be (but not as ugly as last week), then field position and punting is going to be important. PSU, as mentioned, is last in net punting averaging just 30 yards. Iowa isn't much better with a net of 35. But like last week, that extra 5 yards adds up when both teams are struggling on O.
Cover Allen Robinson
Matt McGloin has looked like a different quarterback this year. He's been efficient and is completing 61.5% of his passes. He's thrown for 12 TDs and run for 5 more. The big key to shutting down McGloin though, is taking away his favorite target, Allen Robinson.
Robinson accounts for about a third of the team's receptions and receiving yards with 41 catches for 524 yards. His 7 TD receptions lead the B1G.
McGloin's next favorite targets are TEs. Kyle Carter has 23 catches and Matt Lehman has 12. Nobody else really stands out.
So, I don't know what Iowa is going to do to take away Robinson. I don't think they change away from the standard Cover 2/4/6 stuff they like to do, but the safeties are going to need to keep an eye Robinson and maybe help out the corners with some double coverage.
Greg Castillo has been playing much better than last year, but I think a Castillo on Robinson is a match up PSU will try to attack. B.J. Lowery is supposedly close to 100%, so hopefully he plays. (I'm not too worried about Hyde matching up with anyone.)
Get the tight ends involved
C.J. Fiedorowicz is third on the team in receptions, but he only has 16. The rest of the TEs (Derby, Duzey, and Hamilton) each have 2. We've seen in the past couple of weeks more packages for Duzey and Hamilton. Against MSU, the tight ends combined for 4 of the teams 19 catches. And they were open a lot more. Vandenberg overthrew Duzey a couple of times on some short outs. There was a 3-and-short that Fiedorowicz was wide open for the first down up the seam and instead JVB threw a 0-yard route to the flat that was well short of the first down.
Really, the only thing that has been working in the passing game has been taking shots with Keenan Davis. He's had 6 catches in each of the last 3 games. He made the play of game against MSU on a 35-yard catch on 2nd-and-26. He's the only one who has stretched the field and also the only one who has shown the ability to get yards after the catch on a horizontal pass.
But to improve the pass attack, more people need to get involved. So use the tight ends. We've seen their potential. We've heard Greg Davis talk about using them in the redzone and how CJF can be open even when he's covered. But we haven't seen it in action. The time is now.
I like the way this Hawkeye team has been playing in conference play and I expect it to continue. The defensive line should hold its own and contain the Nittany Lion's mediocre rushing attack. McGloin will be able to dink and dunk down the field but the bend-don't-break D will be in full effect. This is the first really hostile road game for Penn State (Virginia and Illinois were their other away games) and the crowd is going to be raucous on 4th downs. PSU players admitted that Kinnick is tough to play in, and the team practice with piped in noise this week. I think it gets to them and they struggle picking up their precious 4th downs.
I think Mark Weisman plays and gets his yards. It'll be similar to last week with a lot of short runs, but a few that he's able to break and move the chains. Vandenberg once again struggles but does enough to lead the Hawks on 4 scoring drives.
Final Score: Iowa 24 - Penn State 20