Iowa’s bowl eligible, folks! After rattling off three convincing victories to get themselves to that six-win mark, Iowa heads east to take on Penn State this weekend. The Nittany Lions find themselves heading into this matchup at 5-2 and sitting at #17 in the country, per the AP Poll. They barely eked out a victory against the same Indiana team that the Hawks took behind the woodshed two weeks ago - this, of course, after dropping consecutive games to Ohio State and Michigan State at home. Oof.
Of course, that doesn’t tell us the whole picture of who this Penn State team is. To get a better idea of what’s happening in Happy Valley post-Joe Moorhead and Saquon Barkley, I enlisted the help of Black Shoe Diaries, SB Nation’s Penn State blog. We talked about the general feeling of Penn State’s fan base at this point in the season, the Nittany Lion defense, which key contributors will miss this game, and MORE.
Without further ado, here are the Q’s and A’s.
Max Brekke: Penn State is 5-2, but from afar, it seems like things have been unraveling a bit for the Nittany Lions in the last few weeks - they lost two straight and just hung on to beat Indiana despite giving up 550 yards of offense. What is the general feeling amongst PSU fans at this point in the season?
Aaron Yorke: Penn State fans have been low on the team since the Michigan State loss, and the narrow escape from Bloomington did little to assuage those feelings. Trace McSorley is having trouble getting the ball to his receivers, who in turn have trouble catching the ball. The defense looked good in spots against Ohio State and Michigan State, but it bent too much against a mediocre Indiana attack that should not have moved the ball so easily. Overall, the team doesn’t look like the one that went to New Year’s Six bowl games in each of the past two seasons. I’m surprised that the Lions are favored by more than three points in this game, since Iowa is the better team right now.
Max: Trace McSorley is in his senior season at Penn State. He’s been dangerous the past couple times he’s faced Iowa - has his game developed at all between last September and now?
Aaron: McSorley looked pretty fine last year while throwing to super athletes Saquon Barkley and Mike Gesicki in addition to the very solid DaeSean Hamilton. In 2018, though, he’s done a lot of running with the ball because his targets in the passing game aren’t as appealing. KJ Hamler is one receiver who has stood out because of his ability to make plays after the catch, but Juwan Johnson and the rest of the gang have been disappointing. As a result, McSorley hasn’t progressed as a passer, which is why you haven’t heard much Heisman hype for him this season.
Max: Iowa’s offense under Kirk Ferentz is traditionally run first, but this year, Nate Stanley has been lighting up opposing defenses to the tune of three 300+ yard passing games and 16 TDs, including nine to tight ends. Does Penn State have the defensive weapons to slow down Iowa’s surprisingly high-powered aerial attack?
Aaron: Penn State’s pass defense have been pretty decent since being carved up by Appalachian State’s Zac Thomas in the fourth quarter of the opener. It held Dwayne Haskins in check for much of the Ohio State game and kept Brian Lewerke from completing 50 percent of his throws. Amani Oruwariye and John Reid have been doing a good job at the corner spots, but the pass rush had been a letdown until last Saturday. The Lions racked up six sacks against Indiana, including four by Shaka Toney, so maybe that will get them going. I think Noah Fant will give the pass defense trouble because he can attack the middle of the field and the inexperienced linebackers.
Max: What does the injury report look like this week for the Nittany Lions? Any significant injuries that will have an effect on how they play this game?
Aaron: Backup tailback Mark Allen is done for the year, and third-string guy Ricky Slade did not play a down in Bloomington, so expect a heavier dose of Miles Sanders than usual. Still, Slade is back on the depth chart for the Iowa game, so I guess he’s still on second-string duty. On defense, starting safety Garrett Taylor will be suspended for the first half unless his targeting violation against Indiana is reversed. That’s not going to do the pass defense any favors, and I expect Nate Stanley and Fant to take advantage.
Max: Iowa fans are familiar with McSorley and Miles Sanders. Who’s someone they might not be familiar with who could make a huge impact on this game?
Aaron: Hamler is by far the biggest receiving threat that Penn State has, and he’s always ready to make a big play if he’s given the space. Slade isn’t as polished as Sanders, but he’s also capable of pulling off a highlight-reel run. On defense, the Hawkeyes have to keep an eye on Toney, since he’s coming off a big game, as well as fellow defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos. Oh, and while he’s not on Gesicki’s level yet, freshman tight end Pat Freiermuth has become a surprisingly big factor in the passing game.
Max: How would winning or losing this game change the outlook of this season for Penn State fans?
Aaron: A victory against a solid Iowa team would help get the season back on track and give fans hope that the Lions might pull off 10 wins again. A loss, on the other hand, with Michigan and Wisconsin coming up, would make it look like we’re headed for 7-5; a big step down from where we thought Penn State was back in September. So this is a pretty big game for James Franklin and the Nittany Lions.
Max: Prediction time - do the Nittany Lions continue their recent dominance against the Hawkeyes, or does Iowa pull off the victory?
Aaron: Penn State’s offense has been very frustrating, and I like the way that Iowa has taken care of business on the road. Still, the Hawkeyes lost their only game against a ranked opponent this season. That makes this a tough pick, but I’ll take Iowa to pull off a narrow road win since it’s been playing better lately. Iowa 22, Penn State 19
Huge thanks to Aaron for joining us for a Q&A. Of course, I hope the Hawkeyes beat the Nittany Lions by a thousand. For more excellent coverage of Penn State athletics, check out Black Shoe Diaries. You can also find them on Twitter at @BSDTweet. Go Hawks.