Conference play has arrived and it’s here in a big way, as your Iowa Hawkeyes open up league play in Prime Time against Penn State at home. This will likely be the biggest game for the Hawks this season, as the Nittany Lions will probably be the toughest opponent they’ll play this season. Last year’s game wasn’t pretty, so I won’t get too far into it, but Iowa will need to come out inspired in order to defeat a Penn State crew that is largely the same as the one who smoked them last year.
In order to get you up to speed a bit on the 2017 iteration of the Nittany Lions, we enlisted the help of Aaron Yorke from Black Shoe Diaries to answer some questions. In this Q&A, we asked whether Penn State has any real weaknesses, if Iowa would be better off running or throwing against this defense, who will win the game, and more (spoiler: yeah he definitely didn’t pick Iowa).
Let’s get to it.
Max Brekke: Penn State is in a completely different place than they were a year ago at this time, now 3-0 and in a spot to contend for not only a conference championship, but also a national championship. Is Penn State back?
Aaron Yorke: Penn State is most definitely back! Saquon Barkley is one of two players in the nation with an average of more than 200 all-purpose yards per game, and the passing game is as explosive as ever with Trace McSorley averaging almost ten yards per attempt. Head coach James Franklin is also in the zone, making national headlines in back-to-back weeks. Not only did his disrespect Penn State's ACC rival Pittsburgh by comparing it to a MAC team, but then he and iced Georgia State's kicker while leading by 56 points. Jim Harbaugh is no longer the most controversial coach in the Big Ten!
MB: Last year, Iowa fans became very well acquainted with Trace McSorely and Saquon Barkley when they were blown out in Happy Valley. Who are some lesser known pieces that should make an impact on Saturday?
AY: Mike Gesicki might not be as popular as the other two stars of the offense, but he's been plenty productive with 12 receptions and four touchdowns so far. DaeSean Hamilton got off to a slow start in the season opener, but he's been Penn State's most consistent wide receiver with over 50 receiving yards per game. On defense, safety Marcus Allen and middle linebacker Jason Cabinda will be integral to slowing down Iowa's mighty running game.
MB: This Penn State team has to have at least one weakness, right? RIGHT?
AY: I'm still worried about how the offense will function if the big plays get taken away and it has to move 10 yards at a time. Fortunately, taking big plays away has been impossible for most of the opposition the Lions faced over the past two seasons. Still, it would be nice if the offense could develop some more efficiency to match its explosiveness. On defense, Penn State hasn't been challenged by a passing game as effective as Iowa's yet, but Pitt was able to sustain its drives by relying on the ground game. If Iowa can do the same, there's a chance that this game could end in an upset.
MB: Iowa's offense is a bit different than in years past, as they seem more willing to throw than any time in recent memory. That said, they're still a run first team. Do they have a better chance at moving the ball through land or by air against the Nittany Lions?
AY: I'll say ground because of the way Pitt was able to dominate time of possession and keep Penn State's offense off the field. Still, in that game the Lions held Pitt to 14 points by holding them to mostly field goals in the red zone. It might be up to Nathan Stanley and the Iowa passing attack to finish off drives and keep Penn State from stacking the box against Akrum Wadley and the ground game.
MB: Penn State hasn't really been in a competitive game this year - their closest game came against Pitt, who kept it interesting for... let me check the box score... about three minutes. Are Penn State fans worried that Iowa could knock their team off balance by keeping things close, or are they expecting the team to be fully ready for Big Ten football?
AY: I don't think Penn State fans are too worried about the aspect of a close game because of all the coming from behind they did in 2016. McSorley and the rest of the offense seemed to thrive on trailing in the second half and making big plays to turn the tables in their favor. If the Hawkeyes spring the upset, I think it will be because they limit big plays on defense and control the clock with their running game. Penn State's experience in close games shouldn't play much of a factor.
MB: Alright, prediction time. Will Penn State continue its recent dominance of the Hawkeyes or will Kirk Ferentz and Co. buck the trend under the lights in Kinnick?
AY: I like what I've seen from Stanley so far, and Wadley is a stud. That combination should be able to put up some points on the Penn State defense. On the other side of the ball, though, Iowa's pass defense was vulnerable against Iowa State, and Penn State enjoys pressuring opponents vertically until the cows come home. I think the Lions win 31-24.
Thanks to Aaron for his time and insight! Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes throw nine hundred points on your team. For more on all things Penn State, check out Black Shoe Diaries and find them on Twitter at @BSDTweet. Go Hawks.