After 134 years of intercollegiate football, Penn State is one loss away from its only 0-5 start in program history. Iowa, who has fallen six consecutive times to the Nittany Lions and hasn’t won a game in Happy Valley since this happened
is looking for take advantage of Penn State’s skid and break its longest active losing streak against a conference opponent.
Penn State has been a colossal disappointment in 2020 and may appear to be easy prey for the Hawkeyes, but a lion’s claws remain sharp even if it is wounded. Penn State has been slowly spiraling out of control since its overtime loss to Indiana to start the season, but the Nittany Lions are still a talented team full of highly-recruited players who didn’t spurn other blue blood programs to go winless in frigid State College. James Franklin has had Kirk Ferentz’s number since arriving in Happy Valley and is the only active Big Ten head coach to have an undefeated record against Iowa’s leading man, so a Hawkeye victory is far from a certainty. If Penn State can tap into its potential and force Iowa to play more like the team that started the season 0-2 than the team riding a two-game winning streak, the Hawkeyes could very well find themselves returning home having dropped yet another game to the blue and white.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in this weekend’s game:
1. Which team can coax positive play from its quarterback?
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has been viewed as the heir apparent at QB since last season, but has woefully underwhelmed through the first four games, tossing more interceptions (four) than touchdowns (three) on the season. Iowa’s team quarterback rating is the lowest in the conference and seventh-lowest in the nation as of this writing which, considering the strength of the Hawkeyes’ running game and offensive line play as well as the fact that Iowa has one of the most talented collections of pass catchers in recent memory, is completely unacceptable.
While Petras remains firmly entrenched in Iowa’s starting lineup, the same cannot be said for Penn State’s own embattled QB1 Sean Clifford. The junior signal-caller accounted for over 3,000 yards and 28 total touchdowns last season but has regressed at an alarming rate and was benched towards the end of the Nebraska game in favor of sophomore Will Levis. Whether Clifford or Levis gets the start against the Hawks, Penn State will need better play from its quarterback to stand a chance against an Iowa defense that is rounding into its own. The Nittany Lion running game has been a train wreck without Journey Brown and Noah Cain and is far too reliant on quarterback runs to find any production on the ground. Wide receiver Jahan Dotson (388 yards, five touchdowns) and tight end Pat Freiermuth (310 yards on 23 catches), are both dangerous weapons, but Penn State’s QBs will have to account for a fast-improving Hawkeye defensive line and ball-hawking safety Jack Koerner in order to find them.
Meanwhile, Penn State’s defense may present Iowa with an opportunity to jumpstart its own passing game. The Hawkeye wide receiving corps excels at making plays after the catch, and Penn State’s secondary has proven particularly vulnerable against this in 2020.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has done a great job designing rushing plays over the past two games that have put ball-carriers in easy opportunities for success, either though pre-snap motion, creative blocking schemes, or even direct snaps to the running back. If the Hawkeye offense can be similarly creative in designing plays to get the ball to its pass catchers in space, Iowa could create a spark in its passing game without relying too heavily on Petras to make plays downfield.
2. Can Iowa’s offensive line hold up against the Penn State front seven?
Penn State’s ability to dominate the Hawkeye offensive line has arguably been the deciding factor in Iowa’s four previous losses against the Nittany Lions:
Penn State Tackles for Loss vs. Iowa
|Season||Penn State TFLs Against Iowa|
|Season||Penn State TFLs Against Iowa|
While offensive line play has long been a hallmark of Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa teams, Penn State’s front seven has been able to generate consistent pressure against the Hawkeyes for the entirety of James Franklin’s tenure in State College. The decision of star linebacker Micah Parsons to sit out the 2020 season has diminished Penn State’s strength up front, and the Nittany Lions don’t have the depth of talent at these positions than they have in years past. However, Franklin’s defense still has some disruptive players, including capable pass rushers like defensive end Shaka Toney and linebacker Brandon Smith and salty run defenders such as Jayson Oweh and Ellis Brooks who will do their best to harass Iowa’s running backs.
Fortunately, the Hawkeyes should feel better about their offensive line play than they have entering recent games against Penn State. The Hawkeye front five has excelled at opening lanes for Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent, and Iowa has allowed less than a sack a game so far this year, fewer than any Big Ten squad and fewer than all but nine teams in college football. Tyler Linderbaum and Alaric Jackson, two legitimate NFL prospects, rank among the best linemen in the Big Ten in pass protection according to Pro Football Focus and will be called upon to anchor the Hawkeye line and give Petras adequate protection when the sophomore is asked to drop back and pass.
The key to Iowa’s offensive production starts up front, and the Hawkeyes will need their front five to succeed in this game where previous Hawkeye offensive lines have failed in order to earn an elusive victory over Penn State.
3. Can Iowa’s defense continue to force turnovers?
The Hawkeye defense is perfectly positioned to capitalize on one of Penn State’s biggest weaknesses: turnovers. While the Hawkeyes have one of the nation’s best per-game turnover margins, Penn State’s -6 turnover margin through four games ranks dead last in the Big Ten and among the bottom ten nationally. Sean Clifford, whose eight turnovers have resulted in 27 points by opposing teams, has been one of the worst offenders, as evidenced by this interception from last week’s game against Nebraska which ranks among the worst throws I’ve ever seen from a Power Five starting quarterback.
Even if Levis is tapped as the starting quarterback and proves less mistake prone, he will have to confront an Iowa defense that excels at taking the ball away from its opponents. The Hawkeyes have forced ten turnover through four games, have intercepted at least one pass over the past eleven games, and its 61 interceptions since 2017 are the most of any team in college football during that stretch. Iowa has been much improved at avoiding turnovers over its past two games after being loose with the ball in its first two, and if the Hawkeyes can continue this positive trend while extending their own takeaway streaks, it could give them an important edge in their bid to improve to 3-2 on the season.