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Iowa Football: Behind Enemy Lines With the Penn State Nittany Lions

NCAA Football: Purdue at Penn State
Penn State QB Sean Clifford has looked impressive this year. Can the Hawkeyes slow him down?
John Jones-USA TODAY Sports

This football season, as in years past, we’ll be going behind enemy lines each week to ask some of the tough questions, the really hard-hitting ones. Sometimes, we may even go over the line.

We’d also like to know what you’re interested in learning about each opponent. So hit us on social media with some questions you’d like us to ask each upcoming opponent. Slide in the DMs, @ us or use the hashtag #overthelinebhgp and we’ll ask our weekly guests your questions.

The Hawkeyes looked rough last week at Michigan. Correction, the Iowa offense looked rough last week - the defense looked quite good. Now it’s time to flush that performance and look to the future. Unfortunately for Iowa fans, that future involves hosting a top-10 Penn State team that is rolling. Not only have they looked fantastic all season, they’ve won five straight against the Hawkeyes, including a pair of heart-breakers in each of the last two seasons.

To help us get a sense of what to expect Saturday night, Dylan Callaghan-Croley of Black Shoe Diaries. Here’s what he had to say.

BHGP: The last time Penn State came to Iowa City, they had Trace McSorley at QB and a decent RB whose name escapes me. What’s different about this group of Nittany Lions the Hawkeyes will face Saturday night?

BSD: The biggest difference in my opinion is that this Penn State team is a bit more efficient than the one that went into Iowa City in 2017. While Trace McSorley is an all-time great and that running back who Rutgers didn’t have room in their backfield for was tremendous, this group just seems to be clicking at an earlier time for Penn State. Sean Clifford is a much better quarterback in the sense of being a pure passer. He’s extremely accurate and has an incredibly strong arm. If he gets comfortable, watch out. Additionally, this Penn State defense is one of the best defenses Penn State has had in a long time and the best in the James Franklin era.

BHGP: QB Sean Clifford has been lighting the world on fire. He’s thrown for over 1,400 yards with 12 TDs and only 2 picks while completing 67% of his passes. Oh, and he’s rushed for more than 200 yards. How will James Franklin utilize the sophomore QB this week?

BSD: So far this season James Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne have put Clifford in positions to succeed week in and week out for the most part. On Saturday, expect Penn State to use a lot of short to intermediate throws for Clifford to get the ball over the middle of the field. The plan there is to hit players like Jahan Dotson and KJ Hamler in stride, allowing them to pick up a ton of potential YAC yards. That being said, they’ll take their fair share of deep passes as well. Clifford has been hit or miss with these but when he hits them, they often go for touchdown. When it comes to running with Clifford, there will be a few designed runs on RPOs but he’s also dangerous when he escapes the pocket. He can make a potential sack into a 15-20 yard gain if given enough room. He’s a dangerous quarterback and one of the top three quarterbacks in the Big Ten if not the second best in my opinion. The key to Clifford is making him uncomfortable, if Iowa can do that, they’ll have a shot at really shutting down Penn State’s passing attack.

BHGP: The Nittany Lions have three different RBs with nearly 200 yards rushing, in addition to Clifford. After producing Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders the last two years, which of these guys is headed to the NFL and how will they attack Iowa?

BSD: Penn State’s rushing attack this year is really interesting to watch and while some fans don’t feel like Penn State has had a strong rushing attack this year, they’ve really been good the last few games. Just because there’s not one running back leading the way doesn’t mean it’s not a dangerous. But the three running backs that have show a good deal this season are Journey Brown, Noah Cain, and Devyn Ford. If you ask Penn State fans who they want to see start going forward, it’s Noah Cain. Cain when he has the ball is just a strong down hill runner who can get pick up the tough yards. He’s been a huge difference maker and we expect to see more and more of him going forward. Journey Brown is a redshirt sophomore who’s really showing some great poise this year. He’s not as elusive or flashy as Saquon Barkley and Miles Sanders but he can get the job done. He’s extremely fast when he gets in the open field and pick up some tough yards at times as well. Devyn Ford has the chance to be the best of the three backs but he may need to wait another year before really shining. He’s got that IT factor you look for in a running back and could end up being a running back very much like Miles Sanders. He’s got the speed, elusiveness, and athleticism to be a dangerous running back in the future. There is a forgotten man in Ricky Slade as well. Slade, a former five-star is having a tough go to start the season and is struggling to pick up yards but he’s got the talent and ability to breakout at any point.

Now, this week, expect to see a majority of the carries between Journey Brown and Noah Cain. I wouldn’t be surprised if Cain gets the most carries of the running backs either. When Brown is on the field, you’ll see Penn State go for more of the outside runs while with Cain you’ll see a lot of old fashioned between the tackles style football.

BHGP: The Penn State defense is giving up just over a touchdown per game this season. What can you tell us about how they line up and what’s made them so successful?

BSD: Not much has changed in terms of players from last year’s team for Penn State’s defense. This year, you’re seeing the fruits of a defense that is another year older and full of talent and experience. The defensive line that has been among the nation’s best in sacks over the last two years is back again and after a slow start to the season, they have seemed to broke out of their shell over the last few weeks. The linebackers this year are much improved from a year ago and that’s thanks to the year of experience that players like Micah Parsons, Jan Johnson, and Cam Brown were able to add last year. Their depth at the position is also tremendous this year with players like Ellis Brooks and Brandon Smith having strong starts to their season. The secondary this year has been strong as well, they’ll have their bad moments but for the most part, they’ve been solid and steady.

BHGP: To say this Iowa offense struggled a week ago would be kind. What do they need to do to have any success against the Nittany Lions? Is there a weakness in the defense?

BSD: If Iowa is going to be successful against the Nittany Lions, the Iowa offensive line will have to keep the front seven quiet. The Penn State front seven has been dynamite this season against the run and they’ve turned the corner in their pass rush of recent. IF Iowa can keep the front seven quiet in passing situations, the Penn State secondary isn’t perfect and can allow some big plays here and there. They’ll have to be strong in their pushes in the run game as well of course, as Iowa will need to drain the clock quite a bit if they hope for an upset. If the offensive line struggles again for Iowa, I can see this game getting ugly for the Hawkeyes.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Penn State
Can the Iowa OL keep Nate Stanley clean on Saturday?
Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports

BHGP: Who’s the one guy on the defense Iowa fans should really know about?

BSD: Well I feel most Iowa fans who follow college football or remember last year’s game already know the names of Micah Parsons and Yetur Gross-Matos. So those are two names that Iowa fans most definitely need to know, both are future first round picks. Parsons is one of the biggest freak athletes in the entire country while Gross-Matos when he gets going is one of the best defensive lineman in the country. That being said, one name that fans may not know necessarily is that of defensive end Shaka Toney. Toney is coming off his best game of the season with three sacks against Purdue. He’s a tremendous third down pass rusher and when he gets going, he’s hard to stop. He’s not a future star star defensive lineman but he’s going to make a lot of money at the next level from just getting to the quarterback on third down.

BHGP: How about on offense?

BSD: On offense, the one guy every Iowa fan should already know is that of KJ Hamler, so like with the defense, I’ll go with a guy that is up and coming for Penn State. I already mentioned him above, but I’ll mention him again. True freshman running back Noah Cain. Cain committed and signed with the Nittany Lions on National Signing Day last year and has really shown his worth early in the season. He’s averaged five yards a carry this season and has been a bell cow in the red zone for Penn State when needed. He is able to get through opposing defensive lines and finds a way to power through defenders when you think he should be tackled. He’s not flashy but damn does he get the job done.

BHGP: As a PSU fan, what’s the one matchup you’re most excited to see/think the Nittany Lions can most exploit?

BSD: I’m going to kind of cheat here and just say Penn State’s defense against Iowa’s offense as a whole. This is the best Penn State defense we’ve seen in a very long time and Iowa hasn’t exactly looked killer on offense. I think this is a great chance for Penn State to showcase their defense on a national stage. But if you’re going to make me pick a specific match-up, the Iowa offensive line played extremely bad against Michigan and Penn State’s defensive line in my opinion is a bit more talented and athletic than the Wolverines. Their leading the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss, I’m excited to see that in particular. If they can force Nate Stanley make poor throws, I think the Penn State secondary will have a nice day of their own on Saturday night.

BHGP: Which one has you nervous?

BSD: I would say that most Penn State fans are nervous about the matchup between the Nittany Lions offensive line and Iowa’s front seven. Iowa’s front seven is the best that the Nittany Lions ill have seen to this point of the season. The offensive line has looked better in the last two weeks but it’s still far from a finished product. They had a tough time against Pittsburgh a few weeks back, we’ll see if the offensive line has actually turned a corner or if they’ll fold under pressure.

BHGP: Alright, prediction time. After winning 8 of 9 matchups from 2000-2010, the Hawkeyes have gone ice cold losing the last 5 to Penn State. Do they pull out the home upset? Do they cover the 3.5 point spread?

BSD: For me, I think this comes down to Penn State’s defense against Iowa’s offense. I do believe Penn State will be able to score against Iowa in the 17-24 point range at the least. That being said, based off what we’ve seen, I’m not sure Iowa will be able to get past 17-20 points on Saturday. I’m going to take the Nittany Lions to win and to cover thanks to a late touchdown. 24-14 Penn State.

So there you have it - not great for Iowa if we’re being honest.

A big thank you to Dylan and Black Shoe Diaries. They’ve got some really great content on the Iowa front this week, including a deep dive on the statistics for this matchup, a full analysis of Iowa from an outsider’s perspective, a film room analysis, and their full game preview. Really great stuff.

You can also follow BSD on the Twitters @BSDTweet and Dylan is @DylanCCSports.

Thanks again to Dylan for taking us behind enemy lines and go Hawks!