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Hawkeye Football Opponent Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

Is this the year for the Nittany Lions to take home a Big Ten East Division title?

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl Classic-Memphis vs Penn State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

As we countdown the days and weeks until the beginning of the Iowa football season, we’ll be previewing each of Iowa’s opponents in 2020. While the season may seem more and more unlikely by the day, there are still games on the schedule as of this moment, so we’re previewing the teams, even if we don’t know when the season might start anymore after the Big Ten cancelled all fall non-conference games in every sport, instead slating only conference opponents for all seasons.

But we’ll keep on going until we have nothing to write about, and then we’ll just write about other random stuff. Our fifth and latest entry in our series of previews is Iowa’s Week 7 (maybe?) opponent, the Penn State Nittany Lions, who are fresh off an 11-2 season and a runner up finish in the Big Ten East.

Penn State Nittany Lions

2019 Record: 2019 Record: 11-2 (7-2), 2nd in Big Ten East

The Penn State Nittany Lions had their best campaign since their 2016 Big Ten Championship in James Franklin’s sixth year at the helm of the program. The team started 8-0 (including a 17-12 win over Iowa that was plain ugh) before a close loss to Minnesota that put the Gophers on the map (until they traveled to Iowa City of course, but I digress) and a loss to Ohio State that kept them out of the driver’s seat for a division — and conference — title. But the team finished the season on a strong note regardless with a high-scoring victory over Memphis in the Cotton Bowl, and an 11-2 record. But as a result of that, and the continued success the program’s having under Franklin, the program lost multiple coordinators to coaching positions across the country. The Nittany Lions return a lot of talent, particularly on offense, but with a new offensive coordinator in Kirk Ciarrocca and new coordinators for the wide receivers and the offensive and defensive lines, it will certainly take some time for things to gel, particularly for Ciarrocca.

And yet, key returning talent on offensive everywhere except wide receiver and one of the nation’s best linebackers, this team is poised for success in whatever the 2020 season looks like.

Key Departures

As mentioned above, Franklin’s biggest departures came from his offensive coordinator, his wide receivers coach, and his line coaches, either leaving for promotions at other schools, or in the case of offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, let go completely. Former offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Ricky Rahne departed the program to become the new head coach at Old Dominion while wide receivers coach Gerard Parker left to become the offensive coordinator at West Virginia, and defensive line coach John Scott left the position for the same one in the NFL with the New York Giants. Ciarrocca as the new offensive coordinator, however, comes hot off the most successful season in recent history for the Minnesota Gophers, with eyes on a national championship.

However, on the roster side of things, his offense lost its top receiver in KJ Hamler, who departed the program with two years of eligibility remaining after tallying 98 catches, 1,658 yards and 13 touchdowns over two seasons; he was drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos.

Bigger hits came on defense, losing defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos to the NFL ahead of what could have been his senior season, along with cornerback John Reid, defensive lineman Robert Windsor and linebacker Cam Brown. The team lost nine of its ten top tacklers, and that will certainly be difficult to replace, no matter how dominant returning linebacker Micah Parsons might be.

Key Returners

Parsons highlights the returning stars across the board for Penn State. He logged 52 solo sacks and 57 assisted sacks last season, 5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He was a force to be reckoned with, but had NFL caliber talent all around him to help. Defensive end Shaka Toney brings experience to the squad, along with tackles Antonio Shelton and PJ Mustipher. The defensive backfield returns safety Lamont Wade and corner Tariq Castro-Fields, but the entire squad will lack experience. Overall, it could take time for the unit to gel, particularly in the shortened season.

Offensively, the team will be led by senior quarterback Sean Clifford, who passed for 2,654 yards, 23 touchdowns and 7 interceptions last year, along with 5 rushing touchdowns. Behind him will be a stable of running backs led by Journey Brown, who rushed for 890 yards and 12 touchdowns last season on an average of 6.9 nice yards per carry.

Clifford and Brown will be blocked by a veteran offensive line filled by tackles Rasheed Walker and Will Fries and center Michal Menet. Guards C.J. Thorpe and Mike Miranda also return, but both played right guard last season, so projects are that one will move over to the left to fill the squad’s only departure to graduation.

But as mentioned above, the team will struggle returning receivers. Tight end Pat Freiermuth will help after a season in which he caught 43 passes for 507 yards and 7 touchdowns, but Jahan Dotson is the only true wide receiver returning who caught a decent number of passes last season, and his count is only 9. ESPN’s Bill Connelly, in the linked article mentions he expects to see sophomore Daniel George to be the second-leading receiver, with assistance from a combination of four true and redshirt freshmen. Maybe the veteran line and talent behind it will be enough, but there is definitely a gaping hole at wideout this season that teams with experienced backfields will certainly be exploiting early and often earlier in the season.

2020 Preview

With so much up in the air with the Big Ten football season right now, it’s tough again to project what will happen with this squad. As the schedule stands now, the squad is expected to travel to Ann Arbor in its second conference game of the season, after hosting Northwestern for the conference (and season?) opener. It will certainly provide a challenge for the wide receivers group and the almost entirely new defensive unit.

But from there, the schedule is somewhat favorable, with the Nittany Lions hosting Ohio State, Iowa and Michigan State, and no other real (currently) scheduled road tests. The current road slate: Michigan, Indiana, Nebraska, Rutgers. None of those squads, aside from Michigan, scream true challenge for this squad led by Clifford.

I would maybe predict a home field upset against Ohio State like in 2016, but with the possibility of no fans being the x-factor in College Station, who knows.

Regardless, this season could be special for the Nittany Lions if the wide receivers can make plays. There will be challenges for sure, but I’d predict 1 loss, max, for a 10-game schedule, to Ohio State or Michigan. But even then who knows.

Iowa/Penn State Prediction

Not sure what to expect here, but I think it could be a blowout, particularly if Penn State is looking to prove something (potentially) a week removed from a road loss to Michigan. This would be the third game of the season for the Nittany Lions, and fourth for the Hawkeyes. Despite that one game advantage (or disadvantage, depending on injuries, COVID, etc.), there’s a chance the Nittany Lions could come back to State College with vengeance on their minds and absolutely demolish Iowa, 2012 matchup style.

I’m going to predict that, sadly. I think there’s too much offensive talent for the Hawkeyes to handle.

Penn State 42, Iowa 24