The year is 2016. Iowa’s football program entered the season with high hopes after appearing in the Big Ten Championship and Rose Bowl the year prior but has watched its season crumble to ruin after a serious of disappointing losses. Iowa’s most public humiliation yet comes in a road loss to Penn State, where any hopes of a Hawkeye upset are quickly dashed by Iowa’s offensive ineptitude and defensive deficiencies. With the 3rd ranked Michigan Wolverines scheduled for a primetime bout in Kinnick Stadium the following week, few Iowa fans are confident in their team’s ability to pull the upset. Shockingly, the Hawkeyes manage to pull the upset over the heavily favored Wolverines, get their season back on track, and comfortably win their remaining conference games.
Three years later, Iowa fans are hoping to recapture that same night game magic and bounce back after a deflating road loss by winning at home against another top ten opponent. While the antagonists are the same in both stories, the rolls have been reversed; this time it was Michigan who seemingly broke the Hawkeyes’ spirits and Penn State who appears poised to roll into Iowa City and deliver the knockout blow to Iowa’s Big Ten championship hopes.
Still, there are plenty of historical reasons to caution against betting the farm on the Nittany Lions this weekend. Penn State coach James Franklin is 0-6 in road games against ranked opponents, hardly a record which inspires confidence. Furthermore, not only does Iowa have a rich history of pulling home upsets, but Penn State has had its fair share of struggles in nighttime visits to Kinnick Stadium,
with its only win against a semi-competent Iowa team coming in 2017 on the backs of historic performances from two of the biggest offensive stars in the history of its program (not exactly a formula they can easily duplicate on Saturday). As ghastly as Iowa’s offense looked against Michigan, the Hawkeyes remain a dangerous team who Penn State would be wise not to take lightly.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into this weekend’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s offense regain its footing?
One week after setting the record for the most yardage gained in a single game during the Ferentz era, Iowa produced one of its most pitiful offensive performances in recent memory. Iowa’s offense was bound to regress at some point; Nate Stanley was never going to finish the season without an interception, Iowa’s wide receivers weren’t going to torch every defense they faced, and nobody could expect the Hawkeye running backs to run rampant over the Wolverine defense the way they had the Blue Raiders one week prior.
Still, it was shocking to see how far the Hawkeye offense could fall. A unit which had made its name playing mistake-free football was suddenly plagued by penalties (eight for sixty yards) and turnovers (four, including three ugly interceptions). Aside from a few strong runs by Toren Young, Iowa’s ground game was virtually non-existent, and the Hawkeyes mustered only one yard on thirty carries. The Hawkeye receivers, viewed by many fans as the hidden strength of the offense, often struggled to gain separation downfield.
Iowa will need to get its offense back on track to have a shot at the upset this weekend, but the Nittany Lion defense is unlikely to offer much of a reprieve. Penn State ranks second in the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 7.4 yards per game. To make matters worse, the Nittany Lions allow fewer yards per carry than any team in college football, surrendering only 1.46 yards per run. For an Iowa offense whose offensive identity is built on running the football, this poses a significant challenge to say the least.
Penn States rushing defensive stats might be a bit inflated due to the effectiveness of their pass rush (more on that later) the low quality of opponents they’ve faced so far (Penn State has the 90th ranked strength of schedule through five games), and the fact that a severely depleted Purdue team ran for -19 yards against them last week. Still, with talented linebackers like Micah Parsons and Cameron Wade, combined with Penn State’s history of loading the box against Iowa in recent years, one can reasonably expect that Iowa will have difficulty running the ball against the Nittany Lions on Saturday.
The Hawkeyes managed to overcome a similar situation in their bowl win against Mississippi State by attacking the Bulldogs through the air and using short passes as a substitute for the running game, but this strategy will require Nate Stanley to bounce back from one of his worst outings as a starting quarterback and rediscover the efficiency he showed early in the season. Whether Iowa can find a way to run the ball or whether they decide to lean heavily on the passing attack to move the chains, they certainly cannot afford to score three points again if they expect to pull the upset.
2. Can Iowa’s offensive line hold up against the menacing Penn State pass rush?
As badly as Iowa’s offensive skill players struggled last Saturday, its offensive line had an even worse outing. Iowa’s front five were absolutely decimated by Michigan, giving up eight sacks and allowing an additional six quarterback hurries. Michigan’s defense hasn’t been overly reliant on the blitz in recent years, and the Wolverines had only managed to bring the quarterback down six times through their first four games. However, the Wolverines regularly dialed up exotic blitz packages against the Hawks, becoming increasingly aggressive during the second half once it became clear that Iowa’s line was struggling to identify where the pressure was coming from.
Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes will be in for more of the same against Penn State. The Nittany Lions are averaging more sacks per game (five) than any team in football and boast one of the deepest stables of pass rushers in the country. Defensive linemen Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos already have five sacks apiece on the year, and Gross-Matos showed exactly how dominant he could be in a strong performance against the Hawkeyes in Happy Valley last season.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and offensive line coach Tim Polasek HAVE to know that the pressure is coming this week. Even if James Franklin hadn’t repeatedly brought the house against the Hawkeyes in years past, any defensive coordinator who watched Iowa turn in one of its worst offensive line performances in the Ferentz era last week would be chomping at the bit to roll out all of the craziest blitz packages they could muster. To have a chance at containing the rush, Iowa needs a much better performance out of star left tackle Alaric Jackson. Jackson’s return to the lineup last week was supposed to bolster the Hawkeye line but, perhaps still slowed by injury, Jackson looked a step slow and struggled to contain Michigan DE Kwity Paye for most of the game. If Jackson fails to find his rhythm again, he, his fellow linemen, and the players they protect could be in for a long game.
3. Can Iowa rattle Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford?
Penn State’s junior signal caller has far exceeded expectations through five games, throwing for 1443 yards and twelve touchdowns and adding 200 yards and two scores on the ground. With dynamic weapons like KJ Hamler and Jahan Dotson putting stress on defenses downfield and the threat of his legs keeping defenses honest, Clifford has faced very little defensive resistance for much of the season.
Penn State’s game against Pittsburgh was the one exception. Pitt’s defensive-minded head coach Pat Narduzzi drew up exotic blitz packages and creative pass rushing schemes to confuse the inexperienced Clifford, causing a noticeable drop-off in his production and efficiency. Clifford completed only 46.7% of his passes against Pitt compared to his usual 66.7% completion rate, ran for only five yards, and failed to reach the endzone once over the course of the game. Penn State’s dynamic offense, which has averaged an incendiary 47 points-per-game, was held to only 17 points as it struggled to match the intensity and physicality with which the Pitt Panthers played.
If ever there was a time for A.J. Epenesa, Chauncey Gholston, or Daviyon Nixon to absolutely take over a game, that time is now. If Phil Parker has any inventive new pass rushes he’s been saving in his back pocket, now is the time to deploy them. Between the night game atmosphere, the amazing alternate uniforms, and the years of frustration built up over losses to James Franklin’s Penn State teams, Iowa’s fans are going to do everything they can to make life difficult for this young Nittany Lion offense. If Iowa’s defense can build on last week’s strong performance and finally tap into the pass rushing talent that fans expected to see coming into the season, Sean Clifford could be in for his toughest test of the season.