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Know Your Enemy, Spring Edition: Penn State Nittany Lions

The Hawkeyes open the Big Ten slate by hosting the defending conference champs.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl Game-Penn State vs Southern California Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Continuing on with our weekly look at Iowa’s 2017 football opponents is Week 4 foe, and defending Big Ten champion, Penn State. The Nittany Lions shocked the college football world and even added a little controversy to the College Football Playoff conversation a season ago.

Let’s take a closer look.

2016 Synopsis:

Truth be told, head coach James Franklin was on shaky ground heading into the 2016 season. Back-to-back six-loss seasons had the hotseat talk machine revving at full power in Happy Valley. After dropping two games in the month of September — including one to in-state rival Pitt — things were not looking so good. (Shut up, Penn State fans. Pitt is your in-state rival. Deal with it.)

Then, out of nowhere, Trace McSorley decided he was going to be the best quarterback in the conference, complementing Saquon Barkley — the best running back in the conference — and run the table the rest of the year. The highlight of Penn State’s regular season was a blocked field goal to seal the win at home against Ohio State, putting the Nittany Lions in the driver’s seat to win the East.

Their season ended with a hard-fought shootout to a talented Southern Cal team in the Rose Bowl.

Who did they lose?

The Nittany Lions lost a couple of talented defensive ends in Garrett Sickels and Evan Schwan. They also lost starting center Brian Gaia and starting strong safety Malik Golden. The biggest loss is probably wide receiver Chris Godwin. His combination of size, strength and speed was a matchup problem for most collegiate corners who tried to cover him, and you’ll likely see him excel on Sundays. The biggest loss on defense was linebacker Brandon Bell, as he was the senior member of a fairly young position group.

Who do they return?

McSorely and Barkley are back. They’ll operate behind an offensive line that returns four starters. They also get Mike Gesicki back at tight end, and he’s as good as there is in the country. He caught 48 passes for 679 yards and five scores last season. Receiver DaeSean Hamilton is another big, physical receiver who will likely replace Godwin as McSorley’s top downfield target. They also have a couple of younger guys at the receiver position who are going to be difficult to defend in the red zone due to their height. Simply put, the Nittany Lions have no shortage of weapons on offense.

Defensively, Penn State returns eight guys with considerable starting experience. They have a young group of linebackers led by Jason Cabinda, who recorded 80 tackles despite missing five games in 2016. Safety Marcus Allen returns to lead one of the more seasoned secondaries in the Big Ten.

Why Should Iowa Be Worried?

Talent. Penn State simply has more of it on both sides of the ball, and a lot of it is what you would call “elite” — especially on offense. It will likely take Iowa’s best effort defensively and a poor offensive outing from Penn State to give Iowa’s offense a fighting chance to hang enough points to win.

Why Should Iowa Not Be Worried?

History. The Hawkeyes have taken down talented teams at home plenty of times — most recently last year against Michigan. This should be a night game and you people — yes, YOU PEOPLE — should be overfilled with liquid party favors by kickoff. Iowa’s night game atmosphere is as good as any in the country. Additionally, Kirk Ferentz is probably a better coach than Franklin when given just one week to prepare for an opponent.

Key Player for Penn State

Trace McSorley — If he has time to operate, the Penn State offense is going to be tough to stop. Barkley alone is probably not enough to beat Iowa at home, but Barkley with a clean and healthy McSorley chucking the ball all over the field to a slew of weapons is bad news for the Hawkeyes.

Key Player for Iowa

Akrum Wadley — It’s going to take big plays to beat a big-time team like Penn State is projected to be. Wadley is the big play guy in the running game, and he’s probably going to need a big play or two in the return game to keep Iowa in this one. From the sounds of it, Ferentz isn’t opposed to having his best player return punts and kicks.