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KIRK SPEAKS: PENN STATE

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THIS GAME IS IMPORTANT.

NCAA Football: Maryland at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a big week in the Iowa Football world.

This weekend’s upcoming game against the Penn State Nittany Lions was penciled into many fans (including my own) calendars as a big fat L at the beginning of the season. Penn State was a highly ranked team with CFP aspirations.

Now, the Penn State Nittany Lions have suffered two losses, at the hands of Ohio State and Michigan State, and also barely hung on to beat an Indiana team that Iowa pummeled into the ground. To say the fan expectation has shifted is an understatement. And after the Wisconsin loss that still hurts my heart to this day, this game is a must win for Iowa to keep its chances of...well...something? alive.

So how does Kirk Ferentz feel about all of this pressure? Let’s see what he had to say to the media today. Full transcript here.

KIRK FERENTZ: Interesting in contrast to the last couple weeks with Penn State, we’ve played them three straight years. I think we know their personnel, their coaching staff, vice versa. I’m sure they feel the same way about us. A little bit different in terms of our preparation. I think it makes it I don’t want to say easier, at least there’s some familiarity there. Again, I’m sure they feel the same way.

Uh oh, Kirk also said something very similar about Wisconsin. Does this mean we’re going to lose this game, too?

KIRK FERENTZ: The other part about it, any time you go to State College, you’re going to play in a great venue. Challenging place to play, great college venue, loud crowd, enthusiastic crowd. All those things are constants. It’s going to certainly be the same this week for us as we get ready.

I think really what it gets down to is us doing a good job with the things we’ve done a pretty good job of this season. We’ve prepared well for the most part during the course of the year. We’ve shown up and played pretty hard. That’s what it’s going to take moving forward here.

A compliment from Kirk! They’re preparing well! They’re doing a good job! Everything is great! But he’s also right about playing in State College. Iowa has performed admirably on the road this season, but this will be its toughest challenge yet. At least it’s an afternoon game.

Injury update!

KIRK FERENTZ: The only other thing really to add is health-wise we have a couple guys nicked up in the game. I think everybody does at this time of year. On a positive news front, Jack Hockaday is on the field, two days out there. Good to get him back. Thin at the linebacker spot. Same thing on special teams. That’s a positive for us certainly.

That’s really good news about Hockaday. The defense just got a great boost right when they need it. Kirk thinks so, too.

Q. Hockaday back, good thing?

KIRK FERENTZ: It’s a good thing.

Only way that question could have been better is if the reporter said ‘Talk about how it’s a good think that Hockaday is back,’ but I digress.

Q. [Does Hockaday] still start?

KIRK FERENTZ: Yeah, we probably will. We’re playing pretty well right now. Just to get him back, history, recent history, that we’re going to need everybody. The good thing with Jack and Kristian [Welch], they both have a lot of position flexibility. Jack has a lot of flexibility, as does Kristian. We were pretty thin last week, that was a little concerning the last couple weeks. It’s impacted our special teams also. We had Dillon Doyle out there on kickoff team a couple of plays, made two very nice plays. We’ve had to throw him in the punt protection. We’re getting stretched pretty thin.

Q. Hankins is back?

KIRK FERENTZ: We’ll see. He’s not 100% right now. We’ll see what it looks like by the end of the week. He’s not 100% right now.

Something to watch. I’m including this next question because it’s...strange.

Q. Keegan rotating at guard last year, move him to center this year. Is it a case where you’re taking a good player and putting him in a position that stimulates him upstairs, cerebrally?

KIRK FERENTZ: I think just talking about Parker, it’s kind of the same thing with Keegan maybe. He played a lot as a young guy for us, primarily at the guard positions. We graduated really good center. First question going into last spring is who is going to stabilize things in the middle. We ask our center to do an awful lot up there, mentally, making calls, communication. Keegan seemed to be the best candidate.

He played it in the past, was a backup. He’s really done a good job with that. He’s playing really well. But beyond that, talk about the leadership that guys add, I’ve talked about the seniors, but Parker really gives it to us as a whole team. I think Keegan is clearly the leader of that group inside.

Two seniors next to him, Fergy on one side, Ross on the other, two young tackles. The rest of the guys in the group are pretty young. He’s our most experienced guy, most confident. He’s obviously the hub of the group, literally and figuratively. He’s doing a really nice job up there with those guys.

Love that cerebral stimulation. What a weird way to phrase that.

Let’s talk defense.

Q. How is your pass-rush, how is that starting to shape what the other offense is trying to do to you?

KIRK FERENTZ: Every now and then we get in that situation. Pretty good group in ‘09, 2010. Difference with this group is we have more depth than we’ve ever had, at least that I can remember. Those guys are fresher out there on the field.

Any time you can get pressure without having to bring an extra guy, not that we won’t do that, I think that’s really beneficial. Any time you know they have to focus guys to block your guys, that’s a positive.

We’ve been able to have that. Whole new challenge again this week, all these guys that are playing for Penn State, they’ve played, they’ve been there. They’ve handled us pretty well. We got a big challenge in front of us. Then you have a quarterback that can get out of contain really easily. Does a really good job of that. Whole different challenge for us.

If you ask me, that defensive line depth is going to be huge on Saturday. McSorley is going to keep them and the linebackers busy with his ability to run.

Speaking of that...

Q. McSorley made a couple good plays with his feet last year. How concerning is that with all the weapons they have?

KIRK FERENTZ: It’s really tough. I’ve said it before, when you think about Braxton, some of the guys like that, it’s like playing 12 guys when you face those guys. He can make a play out of nothing. He’s got that ability. That’s why he’s such a dangerous performer.

Again, I think beyond what he’s doing statistically, running it, throwing it, just the value he brings to that football team. If he’s in the huddle, I can’t read minds, but my guess is all 11 of those guys felt like they were going to get it done last year against us. Obviously we were hoping it was going to be the other way. We were trying as hard as we would. Somehow they prevailed, came up with the last play. It literally was the last play of the game.

You have to try to do your best each and every play. If there are a couple plays along the way before you get to that last one that can make a difference, which there were a couple in there, we played a little bit better on this one, done this a little bit differently, maybe it doesn’t come down to the last play.

When you play against a guy like this, you have to understand it could be that, if in fact you’re in the game. First of all, you got to be in the game. Then the challenge is to try to end it out.

My brain tells me to worry about an Iowa defense vs. a mobile quarterback, but this is no ordinary Iowa defense.

And one last defense question:

Q. Now that Amani Jones has slipped to third line middle linebacker, any thought of flipping him to the other side of the ball?

KIRK FERENTZ: It’s not a discussion we’re having right this second for sure because we’ve been so fluid at linebacker. First thing he’s doing it really playing well on special teams. That’s of great value to us. We’re always going to look at personnel and all that. I don’t envision that happening. It’s something that could happen. Right now we’re full speed ahead of him playing linebacker.

Well, there you have that. Now, let’s talk quintessential Iowa football: OFFENSIVE LINE TALK.

Q. What do you think of the way the offensive line is coming together? Last week you had your best rushing performance against a physical front. Do you think it’s coming together the right way? Do you like the progression or need to see more?

KIRK FERENTZ: There’s always more to do, always things we can get better and more proficient at. We are definitely moving in the right direction. They’re maturing. Meshing pretty well.

Pleased about what we’ve done seven games into it. Now we’re playing a front, if you’re going to talk about Penn State’s defense, starts up front. They got a lot of guys that are challenging to block. Understand leverage, understand good movement, they’re tough. It’s going to be a challenge for us.

I like the way we’re moving right now at least. I like our attitude certainly. Tim is doing a really good job with those guys.

I would have to agree with this. I’m really hoping that last Saturday was the start of something really good, from both the offensive line and the three-headed running attack.

Now let’s talk freshmen (and maybe a stolen notes controversy!?).

Q. What is your plan with the true freshmen? Is it fluid?

KIRK FERENTZ: Yeah, it is. You’ve been reading my notes or what (laughter)?

We talked about that this week actually. In a perfect world, we had to play some guys early, some guys are playing, we made that decision, three of them are defensive backs, but we were young coming in. Last week Dillon got thrown in there basically because of the injuries at linebacker. We’re starting to get thin at some spots. He’s probably a good illustration.

We are well aware of the four-game rule. Perfect world you want to wait till November, then you have four games to play with it. Also we’re trying to win right now.

I think our attitude really is if somebody can go in there, if we have a need, somebody can help us, we’re going to play them regardless. Then we’ll deal with it at the end of November if it’s a factor. If it means a guy plays in five games, that’s a decision we’ll have to make because we’re going to be trying to win then, too.

We’re far enough along where we know enough about those guys in that pool, the other part is how does that pool look relative to injuries, that type of thing.

I like this mentality overall. This is one of my favorite “New Kirk” ideology shifts, and I think it’s paying off.

And last but not least, let’s talk about the past!

Q. A decade ago you had a couple of pretty big signature wins against Penn State. ‘08, it seemed to kind of put a stamp on the season, elevate your program. ‘09, down 10-0, come back and win. What did those wins do for that group of players?

KIRK FERENTZ: Two kind of different circumstances, just because in ‘09 we were a more mature team. The ‘08 game, I think everybody was getting ready to throw dirt on us. If they hadn’t already started, they were getting ready to fill the hole. We were 3-3, right? That was off the Illinois loss. Everybody started doing the math, these guys are going to be 5-7, if that.

Anyway, every game is a new adventure. That team was trying to find their footing, whereas I think we had our footing in ‘09. But I’ll tell you, as big as any of them was 2000. We were well-documented going into that season, that game, took double overtime or single, I can’t remember which. Hanson comes up with the ball.

But the commonality is we played a good team, we played well. That’s going to be the same thing. Circumstances are different this time than those. But the commonality is we have to play our best football Saturday to have a chance because it’s a tough environment and they’re a good football team. If you can do that, you’re going to feel good about yourself. That’s part of the climb if you’re going to be a team that has a really, really good season.

They do indeed. I’m hopeful it will happen.