The off-season is a long and tiresome trudge, so how can we best get through it? By looking ahead to next year, of course. So, in the spirit of forward thinking, we present a team-by-team look at Iowa's 2010 football opponents (with looks at Illinois and Purdue thrown in for good measure so our Big Televen brethren don't feel ignored). Next up: the Penn State Nittany Lions. Them again?
In case you missed it (or, more likely, have just forgotten)... PART ONE
Fear Jack Crawford and his mighty bullet head.
PENN STATE NITTANY LIONS (@ Iowa City, IA; October 2, 2010; 7:00pm CT; ABC/ESPN/ESPN2)
OK, what should we expect when Penn State doesn't have the ball? A defense with a lot of new faces, but still a typically stout Penn State defense, in all likelihood. Up front, Penn State loses the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in Jared Odrick, but returns experienced faces at three other defensive line spots. Jack Crawford (31 tackles, 14.5 TFL. 5.5 sacks) and Eric Latimore (21 tackles, 6 TFL, 3.5 sacks) are expected to man the defensive end spots; between them, they started 18 games a year ago. Their best returning lineman is defensive tackle Ollie Ogibu, an All-Big Ten Honorable Mention who had 30 tackles (8 TFL, 2 sacks) a year ago. Joining him is (likely) the largely untested DevonStill, who started only one game in 2009, but racked up 19 tackles (5.5 TFL, 2 sacks) in spot action. Penn State's routinely had top-notch defensive lines over the past few years and while this isn't as immediately intimidating as the lines that featured Aaron Maybin or Odrick, it still figures to be more than solid.
Behind the linebackers, Penn State faces an even greater challenge at linebacker than Iowa. The Hawks might have to replace 2/3 of their starting linebackers from a year ago, but Penn State has to replace all three primary starters. They'll have to earn their "Linebacker U" rep this year. On the plus side, they won't be throwing three brand new starters out there. WLB Bani Gbadyu started five games a year ago and had 37 tackles (0.5 TFL) and a forced fumble. SLB Nate Stupar started two games in 2009 and had 31 tackles (1.5 TFL, 1 sack) and one interception. The bigger question may be at MLB, where Michael Mauti is expected to slot in as the starter despite missing the entire season in 2009 with a torn ACL. Whether or not he's fully recovered from that injury could determine whether or not PSU has a weak link in the middle of their defense. Overall, this group is far from being as accomplished as their predecessors, but Penn State linebacking corps are a bit like Iowa linebacking corps: when's the last time you remember a bad crew suiting up? That said, we still mourn the passing of the Hullstache from the halls of Linebacker U; that was truly a majestic lip-warmer.
The bulk of Penn State's secondary returns intact, led by the safety tandem of Nick Sukay and Drew Astorino. D'Anton Lynn's expected to start at one CB spot, with Stephon Morris the favorite to start at the other CB spot. Astorino led the way with 62 tackles (1 TFL), five passes defended (one interception), and two fumbles recovered. Sukay had 41 tackles, 13 passes defended (two interceptions), and two fumbles recovered. Lynn had 35 tackles (3.5 TFL) and five passes defended. No other member of the secondary had any stats of significance, really. They had a top 20 pass defense a year ago, holding opposing offenses to the same number of passing touchdowns as Iowa (9). There's little reason to suspect that they won't have a very solid pass defense once again.
And just how "special" are their special teams? Not very. They return their kicker from a year ago -- but that may not be such a good thing.
Jeremy Boone Collin Wagner was 15/22 (and just 1/5 from 40+) a year ago, which is not exactly Groza-winning stuff. He wasn't any great shakes on touchbacks, either: just ten all year. And yet Wagner might be the strongest aspect of PSU's special teams unless things improve dramatically. They're breaking in a new punter, only the likely starter (Anthony Fera) was suspended (ye olde underage boozin') during spring practice. It won't matter who's punting if their coverage doesn't pick up, though: last year Jeremy Boone averaged a respectable 43.3 yards per kick, but had a net average of 31.7 (that's not good) because their coverage was so abysmal. And, to top it all off, they were even pretty lousy at returning kickoffs and punts (19.7 KR and 5.0 PR). Special teams is one area where Iowa could have a substantial advantage on Penn State, not that it will mean much. I mean, it certainly didn't last year, right?
... oh, right.
Alright, brainiac, what's gonna happen? One of the slightly under-reported elements of the Iowa-PSU series since Ferentz arrived is that, more often than not, the better team wins. Penn State had clearly superior teams in 1999 and 2007; they won. Iowa had superior teams in 2001, 2002, 2003, and 2004; they won. It's slightly more anomalous that when the two teams were evenly matched, as they were in 2000 (they were both poor) and 2009 (they were both good), Iowa also won, but two results does not a trend make. If evenly-matched Iowa and Penn State teams met ten times, Iowa probably wouldn't win all ten games (unless Ferentz really has hexed JoePa). The only win that stands out as an upset is 2008; that Iowa team was arguably better than its 9-4 record, but that was still a very good Penn State team.
Daniel Murray has your "upset" right here...
So if that's all true... what's it mean for 2010? Who's going to be the better team this year? There certainly isn't a massive gap between them; despite their flaws, Penn State still figures to be rather good this year. In terms of positional units, the teams are fairly even: both teams figure to have good defensive lines and secondaries, both teams are fielding a host of new starters at linebacker, both teams have experienced talent at running back (moreso for PSU) and wide receiver. The key differences are at quarterback and offensive line; Iowa has experience at the former and inexperience at the latter, and the reverse is true for Penn State. Can Iowa's new offensive line firm up in time to handle the Penn State defensive line? We're cautiously optimistic. Can Penn State's unproven quarterback hold up under the lights at Kinnick? The Kinnick mystique isn't quite as foreboding as it was in the early 00s, when Iowa put together a 22-game home winning streak, but it can be a terrifying and hostile place at night -- just ask Tate Forcier and Denard Robinson what it's like to make one of the first road starts of your career at Kinnick under the lights. Like virtually all Iowa-PSU games over the last decade, this one should be a tight, defensive game decided by a handful of key plays; we'll go with Iowa by seven.
So how's the rest of their season gonna play out? Just as PSU 2009 could be a glimpse of things to come for Iowa 2010, so too could PSU 2010 be a precursor of what Iowa can expect in 2011. PSU 2010 will be cursed with a novice QB, but blessed with experience at virtually every other offensive position. They'll also be filling in a lot of holes on defense, including an entire LB corps and key parts of the defensive line and secondary. Looking in your black-and-gold crystal ball... doesn't that sound a lot like Iowa 2011? Vandenberg will have slightly more experience than whoever ends up getting the nod for PSU, but he'll still be fairly raw. Yet all of the running backs should be back (Angry Running Back Hating God's wrath notwithstanding), as should many of the receiving options and everyone on the offensive line except for Vandervelde. And the 2011 defense will be loaded with fresh faces, with three new starters along the defensive line, a pair of new linebackers, and at least one new face in the secondary. So take note of what Penn State endures this year, because Iowa could be going through similar woes a year from now.
Mind you, one area that figures to be in Iowa 2011's favor is the schedule. The Penn State 2010 schedule features a brutal gauntlet of road games, with dates against Alabama, Iowa, and Ohio State looking rather treacherous. There's no Alabama on Iowa's slate (BHGP SPYZ can exclusively report that Iowa tried to schedule Bama, but Saban refuses to return Iowa's calls after what happened in the Capital One Bowl), but the 2011 schedule in place now has Iowa traveling to Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin (as well as Iowa's personal house of horrors in Ames, IA). Of course, with our new Big Red neighbors moving in for the 2011 season, that schedule's largely null and void from a conference perspective, so it's anyone's guess who Iowa will draw for road dates two falls from now.
But, good lord, do we ever digress. PENN SCHTAATE. Ahem. So what about their 2010 schedule, eh? PSU opens the season with four non-conference games: home games with Youngstown State, Kent State, and Temple sandwiched around a much-hyped road date with Alabama. Penn State rarely struggles with I-AA or MAC opposition, so it's hard to see even a rebuilding PSU squad dropping one of those games. Temple's a chic pick to win the MAC, but PSU hasn't lost to them since 1941 and it's hard to see that streak ending. If anything, it seems like one of those games that's closer than expected for a half, until PSU pulls away in the second half. On the other hand, it's difficult to project a win in Alabama. While they do have the benefit of playing an inexperienced new Alabama defense early in the season, that's more than offset by the fact that Penn State will be taking a hugely inexperienced quarterback into a night game in Tuscaloosa. Never mind the fact that PSU's own rebuilding defense will have the unenviable task of trying to slow an explosive and experienced Alabama offense. 3-1 through September seems pretty fair.
October brings four alternating home-and-away Big Ten games sandwiched around a bye week in the middle of the month. They open October with a road game against Iowa; as noted, we're chalking that one up for Iowa. Fortunately (for PSU), the other three Big Ten games that month look quite winnable: home games against Illinois and Michigan and a road game at Minnesota. Somewhat amazingly, the only two times that Penn State's lost to Illinois since 1960 were years in which Illinois went to BCS bowls (2001, 2007); chances are that isn't happening this year, so it's probably safe to label that a PSU win. Minnesota's fared slightly better in their efforts against PSU (7-4 overall), but Brewster's never won a trophy game yet -- why start now? Michigan famously had PSU's number for years under Lloyd Carr; RichRod hasn't been quite so lucky, overseeing a pair of losses by an average score of 41-14. Until we see hard evidence of improvement, it's hard to put too much stock in Michigan yet. 3-1 in October seems reasonable, with a slight chance at 2-2 if one of those teams can pull an upset.
The Governor's Victory Bell (pictured) is what Minnesota and Penn State play for (Nope, it's just a bell), but let's be honest: you want to know more about the inflatable duck, don't you? Me too.
November sees the final four Big Ten games: home against Northwestern, away at Ohio State, a "neutral site" game against Indiana at FedEx Field, and a home game with Michigan State. Northwestern is our bugaboo, not theirs. Amazingly, Indiana is the one Big Ten foe that Penn State has never lost to; logic suggests that streak has to end at some point, but if Indiana couldn't beat weaker PSU teams in the early part of the Aughts, it's difficult to see them doing it against a better PSU now, especially when they sold away any potential home-field advantage. PSU's nominal Big Ten rival, Michigan State, hasn't been much better since PSU joined the Big Ten in 1993: they have all of four wins over the Nittany Lions, the most recent in 2007. And exactly none of those wins have come in Happy Valley. But Ohio State... it's harder to see a win in that one, even if the historical series is pretty even (13-12 OSU) and Penn State did manage to win the last time it was in Columbus (10/25/08, also known as Sad Pryor Day). A less-experienced and (arguably) less-talented OSU team dismantled a more-experienced and more-talented PSU team in Happy Valley a year ago -- hard to see what's changed that would lead to a reversal of that result.
Another 3-1 mark seems plausible, which would leave them at 9-3 for the season. 8-4 wouldn't be a stunner, either; they "should" win the other nine games on their schedule, but if there are too many growing pains at QB or on defense, it's not hard to envision them dropping another game somewhere.