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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

Under the lights of Kinnick Stadium...

NCAA Football: North Texas at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Well guys and gals, three weeks down and more importantly, three wins in the book. If one thing’s for sure, it hasn’t looked too pretty but hey, it could absolutely be worse… Shout-out to Nebraska.

With that said, a different week brings on a different test and the test that awaits the Hawkeyes this Saturday is, modestly put, the biggest and most difficult of the 2017 season thus far.

So, let’s kick this thing off and examine what our friends over in Happy Valley are bringing to the table in this year’s matchup.

Best Running Back in College Football

Now, it can be argued whether or not Junior running back Saquon Barkley is the most talented running back in the country. However, in the realm of college football, there is no more impactful and game-changing back out there. Period.

Coming in at 5’11”, 223-pounds, Barkley has a compact build and when he suits up and steps on the field he plays with a level of quickness, explosion, and physicality uncommon to the college game; he’s a real physical marvel.

Since joining the Penn State football program as a true freshman back in 2015, Barkley has been immensely productive on the field racking up 35 total touchdowns and over 2,800 rushing yards while averaging 6.3 yards per touch.

In addition, Barkley also doubles as a very impressive receiver out of the backfield and that’s something that has been put on full display over the past two seasons, as Barkley has recorded over 800 yards and 7 touchdowns through the air alone.

With the ball in his hands, Barkley is able to cut on a dime, explode into space, come downhill while maintaining impressive balance, and use his incredible vision and patience to find cut-back lanes; he’s as close to a final product as you’ll see in college football.

In last season’s Iowa-Penn State matchup, Barkley was certainly able to make his presence felt, as he posted 211 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. This Saturday, barring injury, Barkley will do similar damage to a defense that has struggled in consecutive weeks in regards to taking precise angles, protecting the edge, and finishing tackles.

Points Will Be Raining

Although Barkley is certainly the headliner on offense, as a collective the Nittany Lions go into games looking to air it out and pick up massive chunk plays through the air.

Last season, the Nittany Lions averaged nine yards per pass attempt while averaging over 260 yards passing per game. However, what’s most impressive about Penn State’s passing game comes down to how they distribute it, as 13 different Nittany Lions ended up recording a reception last season.

This season, the Nittany Lions passing game remains much of the same, as they’ve recorded 846 passing yards over the first three games combined.

As far as individual weapons to keep an eye on, senior quarterback Trace McSorely is the well-acknowledged leader of the Nittany Lions passing attack. However, receivers Juwan Johnson, DeAndre Thompkins, Saeed Blacknall, tight end Mike Gesicki, and the aforementioned Saquon Barkley are all proven playmakers and reliable options in the passing game; you don’t often see receiving corps this deep in college football.

This Saturday, Josh Jackson, Manny Rugamba, Ben Niemann, and Bo Bower will surely have their hands full while in coverage.

Key Pieces on Defense

It’s no secret that when you look at this Nittany Lions team the standout aspect is their offensive prowess, as the Nittany Lions proved to be somewhat middling as a whole on defense last season. With that said, the Nittany Lions do possess some quality talent on all three levels and have some pieces that will prove to be challenging for the Hawkeyes come Saturday.

Up front, one of the standouts so far this season has been junior defensive end, Shareef Miller. On tape, Miller flashes as a raw speed rusher who struggles with pad level and has yet to show an ability to utilize an inside move. However, his length and clear and explosion off the line is clear and at the moment, that alone is enough to wrap around slow-footed tackles to collapse the pocket as well as blow up stretch runs.

In regards to the second level, senior Jason Cabinda is still in the mix at linebacker alongside junior Manny Bowen. When you turn on the tape, it’s hard to miss these two, as they’re constantly flying around the field making plays. On Saturday, look for both Bowen and Cabinda to pose a serious challenge for the Hawkeyes behind the line of scrimmage.

Coming into the year, the one guy I really looked forward to seeing on the field was senior safety, Marcus Allen. Coming in at 6’2”, 207-pounds, Allen has great size for the position, as well as great overall athleticism to go with it. Whether it be in coverage or around the line of scrimmage, Allen is on the field to make plays and he does. If need be, Allen can come up and lay the wood or drop back in coverage and act as a ball hawk; he’s exactly what every defense looks for.

In addition to Allen, senior cornerback Grant Haley has also emerged as a playmaker in the Nittany Lions secondary, as he’s already registered a sack, a pass defense, and two interceptions through two games. Be on the lookout for these two on Saturday.

Expectations For This Saturday

There isn’t much like a Saturday night under the beautiful lights of Kinnick Stadium, and with a top-five team coming to town, you better believe the place will be rocking from the get-go. However, the Hawkeyes are facing a different beast in this game and with the way the defense has looked over the past two games, a victory this weekend doesn’t appear very likely.

With that said, if you’re a Hawkeye fan in need of a little hope, all of you have to do is go back and take some notes from the Indiana Hoosiers last year in their matchup against Penn State.

In the game, the Hoosiers were able to dominate inside on the defensive line creating interior penetration that really shut down Barkley outside of a few goal-line touchdowns and even forced Trace McSorely to make a couple costly mistakes.

In addition, Indiana was able to hold edge throughout the entire game thanks to great linebacker play from Tegray Scales and Marcus Oliver, as well as excellent safety play from Tony Fields; for the Hawkeyes, this would be equivalent to Josey Jewell, Ben Niemann, and Miles Taylor.

If the Hawkeyes hope to keep it close on Saturday, they’ll need those three to really show up, make plays, and be consistent; no more sloppy angles and missed tackles.

If the Hawkeyes are able to play a clean game defensively and have their offense putting up points … who knows what can happen. However, that’s much easier said than done. Regardless, as a Hawkeye fan, I’m excited and you should be too!