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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Penn State

Can the Hawkeyes avenge their close loss to the Nittany Lions from a season ago?

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

After a decade of dominating Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions, the Iowa Hawkeyes have found themselves struggling to defeat Penn State in recent years. Iowa’s last win against the Nittany Lions came in Kinnick Stadium in 2010 and while the Hawkeyes have surprisingly only played Penn State four times since, they have lost each of these contests. Kirk Ferentz will look for his first win against Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin this Saturday in a highly-anticipated matchup between ranked opponents (coincidentally, 2010 was also the last time these two schools met while both ranked in the top 25).

Despite holding a higher ranking than the Hawkeyes, Penn State’s season seems to be trending downward right as the Hawkeyes are beginning to crest. The Nittany Lions broke their two-game losing streak with a narrow win over Indiana last week, which contrasts rather sharply with Iowa’s total dominance over the Hoosiers in Bloomington just one week before.

Additionally, Penn State is about to begin a brutal stretch of their schedule which will see them take on three of the Big Ten’s most physical teams in Iowa, Michigan and Wisconsin in consecutive weeks. Quarterback Trace McSorley has already carried the ball 98 times this season (for comparison, Iowa’s leading rusher is Toren Young with 82 carries), and three straight games against physical, hard-hitting defenses could seriously test McSorley’s health if he is forced to continue running the ball at this rate. Penn State fashioned themselves as a title contender coming into this season, and one gets the sense that if they don’t regain that form this weekend, their season may be dangerously close to coming off the rails. The Nittany Lions will play with a sense of urgency on Saturday, and the Hawkeyes must be prepared to match it to escape Happy Valley with a win.

Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:

1. Which team can best stop the opposing pass rush?

Both Iowa and Penn State have defenses that excel at getting to the quarterback. The Nittany Lions rank third nationally in sacks-per-game with 3.57 while the Hawkeyes come in a few notches below at #14 with 3.14 per contest. Both teams rely on their talented defensive lines to generate the bulk of their pass rush, and Nittany Lion edge rushers Shaka Toney, Shareef Miller, and Yetur Gross-Matos comprise a unit comparable in strength to Iowa’s defensive end trio of Parker Hesse, Anthony Nelson, and AJ Epenesa.

Both quarterbacks have shown themselves to be fairly adept at avoiding the pass rush so far. McSorley’s mobility makes him a threat to throw on the run or escape the pocket to scramble for the first down, while Nate Stanley’s improved footwork and ability to channel Ben Roethlisberger have allowed him to evade a number of sacks this season.

The ability of each team’s offensive linemen and running backs to hold up in pass protection will go a long way in determining which defensive front can best make its presence felt. The Hawkeyes have easily outpaced Penn State on that front despite McSorley’s ability to use his legs to avoid the rush, as Iowa has surrendered only six sacks this season compared to Penn State’s thirteen. Still, the Minnesota game showed that elite pass rushers can still make plays against Iowa’s offensive line, which can have disastrous results.

Both offensive lines will be tasked with stopping one of the best front fours in the country on Saturday, and which unit can best contain these pass rushers will have a major impact on the outcome of the game.

2. Can Iowa do to Penn State’s rushing attack what it did to Maryland’s?

The answer to this question is almost certainly “No,” but that largely speaks to the utter dominance that Iowa’s defense displayed against Maryland’s run game last Saturday. The Hawkeyes held the vaunted Maryland ground attack to only 68 yards on 23 attempts in what was one of the most impressive showings by a Hawkeye defense in recent memory. Iowa will be hard-pressed to replicate this performance on Saturday, but the knowledge that this defense is capable of such a feat despite the myriad of injuries to key defensive contributors is quite comforting.

Iowa’s front seven against Penn State’s rushing attack will be a fascinating matchup of strength-on-strength. While Nittany Lions boast the 13th ranked rushing offense in the country, the Hawkeyes allow the second fewest yards-per-game on the ground in college football. Penn State has broken the third most rushing plays of 40+ yards this season with eight, while Iowa’s defense has yet to allow even one such play. Penn State’s dangerous read-option game with McSorley and running back Miles Sanders has given defenses fits all season, while the Hawkeye defense has excelled in snuffing out such plays in every contest in which they have encountered them this season.

Iowa can’t eviscerate the Penn State rushing attack the way they did Maryland’s, but their ability to contain it could put the Nittany Lion offense in serious trouble. Despite ranking as the best quarterback in the conference at midseason according to Pro Football Focus, Trace McSorley’s passes have been dropped at a higher frequency than any Power-Five QB in 2018. Forcing the Penn State offense to become a one-dimensional passing attack would give the Hawkeye defense a serious advantage and would put the pressure on the Nittany Lion receivers to consistently avoid drops in order to incrementally move the ball against Iowa’s bend-don’t-break defense.

3. Can Iowa’s offense achieve balance?

Although Iowa’s offensive output has given fans cause for celebration this season, the Hawkeyes have been fairly inconsistent in how they’ve generated that output. While Iowa struggled to pass the ball in games against Northern Illinois and Maryland, the Hawkeyes had similar challenges in the running game against Minnesota and Iowa State. There were certainly extenuating circumstances behind Stanley’s poorest outings this season (multiple offensive lineman suspensions, 40+ mph winds), and it’s worth noting that Iowa won all of the games mentioned above.

However, defensive coordinator Brent Pry has done a fantastic job scheming against the Hawkeye offense in their previous two matchups, holding Iowa to 14 and 19 points. As excellent as Iowa’s passing game has been for much of the season, Iowa will need to establish the running game early to keep the Penn State pass rushers honest, just as Stanley must avoid another erratic performance and regain the rhythm he displayed against Minnesota and Indiana to prevent Penn State from stacking the box to beat Iowa the way they have in previous years. Iowa has been able to win a number of games this season in which only half of its offense was working as planned, but they will need both the run and pass games to click in order to move the ball consistently this Saturday.

4. Can Iowa handle a hostile road environment?

While Penn State is not Iowa’s first road game this season, one can hardly compare trips to Minneapolis and Bloomington to a highly-anticipated matchup in Happy Valley. Despite dropping two consecutive home games to Ohio State and Michigan State, the Nittany Lions went over 1,000 days without losing a home football contest prior to these defeats. Beaver Stadium is one of the most intimidating road environments in college football, and the growing hype surrounding this matchup will have the Penn State fanbase at a fever pitch come kickoff.

Nate Stanley has played many great games since becoming Iowa’s starting quarterback in 2017, but his 4-3 record in road games leaves much to be desired. Iowa matches up fairly well on paper against the Nittany Lions but overcoming a hostile crowd to win what is arguably the most difficult game remaining on Iowa’s schedule this year will seriously test the mettle of this team and show whether they are ready to compete for a Big Ten Championship.

Strap yourselves in, this should be a fun one.