Iowa and Penn State have been intertwined for thirteen years. Kirk Ferentz, an eastern Pennsylvania kid who once said he was the only high school player in the state to not receive an offer from Joe Paterno, marked this game with red letters for years. In 2000, Ferentz got his first road win in Happy Valley in overtime. In 2002, Iowa announced its intentions with another overtime victory at Beaver Stadium. The 2004 game -- known only as "6-4" -- came just days after Ferentz had buried his father, the win bringing tears to his eyes (tears than now come with increasing frequency). Iowa's 2008 upset victory over the Nittany Lions shattered their national championship aspirations and catapulted the Hawkeyes into a winning streak that would stretch for more than a year. The 2009 revenge game, again won by Iowa, cemented that team's place in the upper echelon of all of college football just weeks after it had been brought to the brink by Northern Iowa.
There has been a continuity in respect and admiration between the two programs, as well. If there was a football coach Kirk Ferentz revered more than his NFL mentor Bill Belichick, it was Joe Paterno (though both pale in comparison to Joe Moore, of course). If there was a model for the Iowa program under Ferentz, it was Penn State. Iowa might have dominated the series, but there was no ill will. There was no disrespect. There were simply two teams trying to do the same things,* with one that had a better grasp on the other's system. Institutional knowledge gave Iowa its edge, an edge it did not want to give away.
* -- Last year's contest, a 13-3 Penn State win, only reaffirmed the storied conservative tradition of this duel. Iowa's gameplan, much as it was for Michigan State last week, was simple: Conservative, ball control offense that protected the ball and the field position at all costs, with Iowa's usual stellar defense against Penn State's similarly constrained offensive system. Iowa played its gameplan to the letter, but the offense could not get the field position it needed to make that gameplan work, and so Iowa lost.
And so it is fitting that, in a year of massive flux at Iowa and earth-shaking change in Happy Valley, the programs emerge from the tumult again as mirror images. Both are now ridiculously Belichickian in both philosophy and practice, with Brian and Kirk Ferentz's ties to the New England head coach probably bested by those of Bill O'Brien. Both are implementing new passing offenses with mixed results. Both have a bevy of new position coaches who spent much of September trying to find their way through their rosters. Both lost two non-conference games, one to a respected, top 25-ish opponent and another to a team that it should have put away with ease were it not for special teams buffoonery. And both offenses are completely dependent on a walk-on who came from nowhere to take first a starting position and now the reins of an entire offense. Iowa and Penn State, together riding the wave of change in college football, tied together as they have been for so long.
The difference, though, is that Iowa is no longer the upstart looking for advantage in the predictability of the old guard on the other sideline. Long gone are the days of Chad Greenway calling out Penn State's offensive plays before the snap. Quite to the contrary, it's now Iowa that is going to do what Iowa is always going to do, with Penn State the new regime looking for chinks in the old guard's armor. For the first time since he took over in Iowa City, Kirk Ferentz enters a Penn State game with far less knowledge of his opponent's tendencies than that opponent has of his. Bill O'Brien can and will be unorthodox tomorrow. Kirk Ferentz won't, and probably can't, return in kind.
This is not a position of strength unless Iowa can do what it does better than a Penn State defense with near-perfect knowledge can stop it. That means, as always, that execution is key, but it also means that those moments of imperfect oppositional intelligence, the moments where the opposition's knowledge is used against them -- the flea flicker against Minnesota -- have to be perfectly timed and flawlessly conducted. Play calling tomorrow is key more than any other game this season, especially if Iowa's walk-on wunderkind does not play. Greg Davis has shown the ability, in many ways better than his predecessor, to set up big plays hours in advance. The Bullock counter against NIU was an example. The flea flicker was another. Iowa can run the setup plays; it's done it a thousand times, the plays are ingrained in their DNA, and its actual success isn't particularly important to a game that has 6-4 written all over it. Iowa's ability to cash in on the setup is going to be the difference tomorrow.