It’s strange to me to come out of a bye week feeling so ambivalent about Iowa’s upcoming game. In a lot of ways it feels similar to the lead-up to the Minnesota game, which came on the heels of disappointing showings against North Dakota State and Rutgers, and I suppose that might be a good thing for my mental wellbeing.
Penn State comes into this contest hotter than just about any team in the country. After a 2-2 start to the season, I would’ve been shocked to learn that James Franklin’s squad would be sitting at #12 in the initial CFP rankings and with a legitimate shot to win the East (picture this: Penn State wins out against Iowa, Indiana, Rutgers, and Sparty and Michigan loses in Columbus on November 26th. Just like that you’d have Penn State going to Indianapolis).
There’s a lot going against Iowa in this game, not the least of which is playing in Beaver Stadium for a night game. Nonetheless, there’s still some reason to hope the Hawkeyes will hang around and have a chance at the end; hence, your keys to the game.
Contain Saquon Barkley
There isn’t any ambiguity about who makes the Nittany Lion offense tick: sophomore running back Saquon Barkley has quickly cemented himself as one of the most talented backs in the country and presents a huge challenge to the Iowa defense. Barkley is an impressive athlete with a penchant for explosive plays, so the Hawkeye front seven will need to be especially disciplined in preventing big gains on the ground.
It’s certainly unreasonable to expect the Hawkeyes to be able to shut down Barkley’s production altogether—a player of his caliber will get his more often than not—but if Iowa is able to mitigate big plays and force Penn State to be more methodical offensively, the Hawks have a chance. Quarterback Trace McSorely is a concern because of his ability to run (granted, any quarterback with above average mobility scares me against Iowa), but he hasn’t been consistently accurate through the air this season. Simply put: if Iowa is able to repeatedly put Penn State is 3rd-and-passing situations, odds are McSorely will misfire enough to keep the Hawkeyes in the game. The stats back this up, too: Penn State is last—by a lot—in the Big Ten in 3rd down conversion rate at just 25% (for reference: Iowa is at 37% on the year). The Hawkeyes need to make that 3rd down trend a factor tomorrow.
Protect CJ Beathard
It’s no secret that Iowa’s pass protection has struggled to protect CJ Beathard this season. The bad news for Iowa? The Nittany Lions are second in the Big Ten with 2.9 sacks per game. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, the offensive line is mostly healthy coming out of the bye and the line that had so much success against Minnesota should be intact. That will be important, because Iowa needs a big performance out of Beathard on the road in order to pull out a win. Which brings us to the final key:
Find Offensive Balance/Consistency
This is what Iowa fans have wanted to see all season and coming out of a bye with only four games left, it’s really now or never for the Hawks. Facing a defense as disruptive as Penn State, the Hawkeyes will need to be successfully balanced to keep the Nittany Lions on their toes. As per usual for Iowa, this starts in the trenches. If the offensive line is able to consistently open up holes for LeShun Daniels and Akrum Wadley, it will go a long way toward granting Iowa some offensive success in this game. That’s easier said than done, though, against a Penn State defense that is healthy and on a hot streak. Look no further than the win against Ohio State in Happy Valley two weeks ago: the Buckeyes were held to 4.2 yards per carry and legitimately struggled against a revamped Nittany Lion front seven. Nonetheless, Iowa must have at least some success, because as we’ve seen, when the Hawkeyes can’t run, they lose.
It’s tough to feel any real level of optimism heading into this game. I have some hope that Iowa’s defense will continue to show up and keep it close, but so far we haven’t seen a shred of the killer instinct that Iowa’s offense showed down the stretch of games in 2015 and at this point it’d be foolish to expect a reappearance until proven otherwise. Nittany Lions in a close one.
Penn State 23, Iowa 17