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Iowa Football: Five Questions on Penn State

Iowa hasn’t beaten Penn State since Joe Paterno was the coach. Can that change this year?

NCAA Football: Maryland at Penn State
Can Iowa put up enough points to get a W against James Franklin and Penn State?
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The Iowa Hawkeyes took home another dominant win in week four of the Big Ten slate and appear to have their season back on the rails after a pair of frustrating, disappointing losses to start the year. Penn State, on the other hand, is fully off the rails starting the year 0-4 for just the second time in program history.

Despite the difficult start, the Nittany Lions are talented and have won the last six meetings against the Hawkeyes. Is this the year Kirk Ferentz finally beats a Penn State team not coached by Joe Paterno? To find out, we enlisted the help of Dylan Callaghan-Croley from Black Shoe Diaries.

Here’s a look at our exchange.

BHGP: Obviously this season has not gone according to plan for either Penn State or Iowa, but for the Nittany Lions things are well below historic norms with just the second 0-4 start in program history. Can you pinpoint 1-2 things that are at the root of the problems?

BSD: It’s fair to say that this season has been a disappointment and that’s a major understatement if we’re being honest. When trying to pinpoint issues I would have to say it’s quarterback issues and poor defensive play in general.

Sean Clifford at quarterback has pretty much been a disaster for Penn State this season, he turns the ball over at an extremely high rate and it’s just hard to get anything consistently going on offense when you’re worried about a turnover happening every 10-15 plays. I’m not sure if that was his true rate but it probably isn’t far off and it certainly felt like it. Moving towards Levis (more on him next question) seemed to help smoothen the offense last week. The offense in general is putting up yards but turnovers and red zone struggles have certainly been an issue.

Defensively, this defense is highly uncharacteristic for a Penn State defense. They struggle at getting set at times, there is often holes in the secondary, poor reads, poor coverage, poor tackling, we can go on and on. The offensive issues feel like they could solve themselves if Will Levis plays well but the defensive issues I don’t see improving anytime this year.

BHGP: We saw QB Sean Clifford get benched a week ago after really struggling with turnovers through 3+ games this year. Will he be back in the field against Iowa and if he’s not the starter what should Hawkeye fans expect out of Will Levis?

BSD: My gut says Levis starts and it’s simple, the Penn State offense when he was on the field last Saturday, moved the ball smoothly, quickly, and without error mostly. With Clifford, his regression has been major and baffling to say the least. Putting Clifford out there would be malpractice and not give Penn State the best chance at winning simply in my mind. That being said, Penn St has a commitment from Clifford’s younger brother Liam, a composite three-star wide receiver, with that do they give Clifford a series or two in order to keep Liam on board? (We all expect PSU to go to the transfer market for a quarterback which likely means the elder Clifford leaves) I wouldn’t rule it out.

Levis is a similar player to Clifford in a lot of ways, their good sized quarterbacks who are not typical dual threat style guys but use their size and “sneaky” athleticism to pick up some decent yardage on the ground. Penn State won’t be scared of running the quarterback so expect plenty of that on Saturday. Passing wise, Levis isn’t a polished passer by any means and he’s not the most accurate but he has a rocket of an arm which they will likely try to take advantage of as well.

BHGP: Despite the struggles of Clifford, Penn State has moved the ball somewhat effectively averaging 437 yards of total offense per game, compared to only 367 for Iowa. Who else should Iowa fans know about on the Nittany Lion offense and which matchup is likely to be most successful if PSU is to win?

BHGP: The three names to know on Penn State’s offense right now are TE Pat Friermuth, WR Jahan Dotson, and WR Parker Washington.

Friermuth is well known, he’s one of the county’s top tight ends and has had back-to-back monster seasons. He’s dangerous no matter where the Nittany Lions are on the field and if he gets hot, it could be a long day for opposing defenses. Dotson, has had a breakout season and has become the Nittany Lions No.1 wideout replacing KJ Hamler. He doesn’t have the pure speed of Hamler but Dotson has some of the best hands Penn State has seen over the last decade, up there wi the likes of Allen Robinson and Chris Godwin. He’s not as big as those two but he has tremendous athleticism that allows him to go up and make the tough catches.

Finally, Parker Washington is a true freshman who everyone around the program is really high on. He’s got a chance to be a very special receiver in the future for Penn State with a combination of size (5-foot-11, 200 pounds), speed, and really good hands, he’s made some impressive plays already. Each week he’s gotten better and better and I’m excited to see the steps forward he takes this week.

BHGP: On the flip side, the Penn State defense has given up at least 30 points in each game this season while the Iowa offense struggled mightily in the first two weeks before finding themselves in the running game the last two weeks. How do you expect the Nittany Lion defense to counter Iowa’s rushing attack and should we expect to see Spencer Petras on his back frequently in passing situations?

BSD: This is where the game will get decided in my opinion. Penn State’s defense against the Iowa offense. The Nittany Lions defense this year has consistently allowed big plays to occur each game and it’s cost them a chance to win pretty much in every game but the Maryland game. The Nittany Lions rush defense hasn’t been great this year, allowing about 130-yards per game so I do think Iowa will be able to run the ball rather well. They’ve struggled with tackling much of the season especially at linebacker which if a Hawkeyes running back gets into the second level, a five yard run could turn into 10-15+ yards rather quickly. I would say they could try to sell out to stop the run but with the play of the secondary, it’s a risky proposition even if Petras doesn’t necessarily scare you. In terms of sacks, I wouldn’t be shocked if Penn Sate gets one or two just due to the talent on that defensive line but they’ve struggled at times in getting home on the pass rush. They’ll get plenty of pressure but just have been a bit slow in finishing the play. This matchup is really intriguing and while Iowa’s offense isn’t one that scares on paper, it is an offense that can beat a team like Penn State’s in a multitude of ways which makes them quite dangerous. The Hawkeyes may not have the big national names but it always seems there’s multiple guys lurking and are ready to shine when given a moment to do so.

BHGP: Alright, prediction time. This one opened as a pick’em but is now up to Iowa -2.5 on most books with an over/under at 48.5. How do you see this one shaking out and can Iowa finally beat a PSU coach not named Paterno?

BSD: I picked Nebraska to win last week and I’m picking Iowa to win this week. Give me the Hawkeyes in this one, I think it’s a really bad matchup for this particular Penn State team and while the offense has a chance to take a step forward this week with Levis behind center (presumably), I just don’t think the defense can make enough plays to win this game. I wouldn’t be shocked at an Iowa blowout but give me the Hawkeyes 23-16. Though with this season, another 6-4 game certainly seems possible.

So there you have it, punts and safeties may be headed our way! Thanks again to Dylan Callaghan-Croley at Black Shoe Diaries for taking the time to get us up to speed on Penn State. Be sure to check in over at BSD as they’ve got some great Iowa-related content this week. We’ve linked a bit of it on the home page already.

You can also follow Dylan on the Twitters @DylanCCSports and Black Shoe Diaries @BSDtweets for game day updates.

Go Hawks!