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Iowa Football: Five Questions on Penn State

The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions face off in an historic matchup of top-5 Big Ten teams on Saturday.

Indiana v Penn State
Can the Hawkeyes get after Sean Clifford?
Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The Iowa Hawkeyes sit at #3 in the nation not just because they’ve played great football in their first five games of the season, but also because they’re battle tested. They’ve taken down a pair of top-20 teams (at the time of playing), including a road win against a top-10 foe. Now they take on a new challenge as they face their first top-5 opponent of the season.

To help get a better idea of just what lies ahead for the Hawkeyes, we sat down with Dylan Callaghan-Croley of Black Shoe Diaries, SB Nation’a Penn State site. Here are our five questions on Iowa-Penn State.

BHGP: Through five games, the Hawkeye defense has far outperformed the offense often setting them up with tremendous field position or simply scoring the points themselves. A major key for any Iowa team is to get things going in the ground game. The Hawkeyes are 54-3 in games where they rush for at least 100 yards dating back to 2015, but just 6-16 in games where they fail to breach the century mark. While Penn State boasts a talented defense that is 3rd in the nation in scoring defense at 12 ppg, they’re 31st in rushing defense giving up nearly 112 yards per game on the ground. That includes 180 and 182 yards from Wisconsin and Auburn respectively. What should Hawkeye fans expect to see out of the PSU run defense on Saturday and which unit do you think holds an edge here?

BSD: The Penn State rush defense this year has actually been super solid. A deeper look at the Wisconsin game and the Badgers ran the ball 58 times for 174-yards, an average of 3.0 yards per rush. When you run the ball nearly 60 times, three-yards a carry will add up. Against Auburn, the run attack was shaky, absolutely but they also faced one of the best running backs in the country in Tanks Bigsby that game. For the majority of that game I thought they kept him in check rather well. Then against Ball State, Villanova, and Indiana they were very good against the run. With what I’ve been told has been a weaker Iowa offensive line especially in the interior, I think Penn State’s run defense has a chance for another strong game. In the middle P.J Mustipher and Derrick Tangelo have been great at eating space while then you have Arnold Ebiketie who has terrific athleticism and closing speed on one end while defensive end turned linebacker Jesse Luketa mans his side at high quality as well. That’s not to mention a highly athletic linebacker group headlined by Brandon Smith in the middle. I think Iowa will get their yards but I think Penn State will do a strong job at limiting the big plays.

BHGP: While running the ball is vitally important to a Kirk Ferentz team, the biggest area of concern for the Iowa offense through five games has been in the vertical passing game. While some of those concerns have been eased over the last two weeks, Spencer Petras and the Iowa offensive line remain a bit of a wild card. The Hawkeyes have given up 11 sacks through five games and Petras has been known to get happy feet. On the flip side, Penn State is tied for 99th in the nation with 8 sacks but comes in 7th in defensive pass efficiency and ties for 25th in the nation with 9 turnovers created. How should Iowa fans expect PSU to approach Iowa’s limited aerial attack and who are some of the names we should know in this area of the game?

BSD: This Penn State defensive is absolutely for real and in my opinion among the elite in college football especially against the pass. The entire Penn State starting secondary in my opinion has a strong chance to all be NFL draft picks in the future and two of them in Jaquan Brisker and Joey Porter Jr have chances to be first round draft picks. The entire secondary has limited big passing plays all season and rarely lets wide receivers get behind them. In terms of the pass rush, a lot of the goal this season for opposing quarterbacks and offenses has been getting the ball out quickly, which has severely limited the sack total so far this season. The Penn State front seven will get plenty of pressure on opposing quarterbacks even if they’re not getting home. The biggest name to know on the defensive line is Arnold Ebiketie, a transfer from Temple. He’s been tremendous this season with a ridiculously good first step and has a chance to be in the backfield every play.

BHGP: Looking at the other side of the ball, much has been made of Iowa’s ability to turn people over, but Penn State has turned the ball over just three times all year while averaging 30 points and nearly 420 yards of offense per game. How do you expect James Franklin’s bunch to approach attacking this Iowa secondary and do you think QB Sean Clifford can avoid the turnover bug that has infected so many of Iowa’s opposing QBs so far this season?

BSD: This will by far be the best offense Iowa has faced all year and will be the best they face all regular season. The Nittany Lions just don’t have Jahan Dotson who is arguably the nation’s top wide receiver, they have Parker Washington a legitimate top end NFL prospect himself, KeAndre Lambert-Smith, who hasn’t done a ton this year but is learning to put it all together. That’s not to mention what I believe is potentially the best tight end room in the country headlined by Brenton Strange and Theo Johnson. I think Penn State’s offensive game plan is going to focus on limiting Iowa’s ability to rotate players in and out on defense. Penn State doesn’t sub in and out much on singular possessions which will play into this “projected” gameplan. It won’t make a huge impact early in the game but as the game goes on I believe it could end up being a big factor in who walks away with the victory. I also think Penn State is going to look quite a bit to get the tight ends involved, perhaps by using some 22-personnel looking with attempts to get mismatches in the middle as both Strange and Johnson are big and highly athletic tight ends, especially the latter. By making the tight ends a bigger part of the game especially across the middle, it will open up opportunities for Dotson, Washington, and Lambert-Smith to all use their speed and athleticism along the outside and in the slot, trying to get more one-on-one matchups.

BHGP: As noted, establishing the run is critically important for the Hawkeyes, but nearly as important is stopping the run and forcing opponents to throw into this secondary. The run game has been an area where it seems Penn State has been vulnerable in their closer wins over Wisconsin (50 yards on the ground) and Auburn (84 yards rushing) with starting RB Noah Cain averaging just 3.2 yards per carry on the season. Do you expect the Nittany Lions to remain patient and focus on establishing the run game in this one and if so, how do you expect them to attack this Iowa defensive front that’s giving up 2.7 yards per attempt?

BSD: It’s hard to say honestly with this rushing attack, Noah Cain hasn’t been healthy for most of the season, an issue that’s plagued him his entire career. But outside Cain, this Penn State offense has been averaging nearly 5.0 yards per carry with Keyvovne Lee leading the way at 6.2 yards per carry. The biggest actual issue with the rushing attack has been short yardage situations which is a major concern.

In terms of during the game, I do expect Penn State to remain patient and really look to establish the run game. They were solid last week against Indiana but obviously the Hawkeyes are a whole different animal in that aspect. They’ll stay with the run game just to keep the offense balance and help set up other aspects of their offensive game plan. Will it work? I don’t expect to but I’m pretty certain that they’ll stick with it no matter the results.

BHGP: OK, prediction time. This one has been a bit all over the place in terms of betting lines, but DraftKings has it at Iowa -2.5 with an over/under at 41.5. How do you see this one playing out in Kinnick Stadium and what’s your final score prediction?

BSD: I’ve been so back and forth in this game that I truly don’t know which way to go. I’m pretty confident that if Penn State can limit their turnovers to one or two at most that they have a great chance at pulling out this victory. I think the Penn State defense is pretty underrated coming into this game and I think could be the big difference in it as well. I truly believe that Iowa won’t be able to move the ball a ton against this Penn State defense barring turnovers and short field position, which to be fair, Iowa does really well, as you all know. Ultimately I think it comes down to who makes the least mistakes between Clifford and Petras, not just turnovers but missing big throws, even things like getting balls knocked down at the line of scrimmage, so on and so forth. With that being said, I have no idea who I trust more to not make more mistakes. Ultimately, I think Penn State’s offense is better than Iowa’s and has the better chance for explosive plays. They’re not to put up anything flashy against this Iowa defense but I think they’ll do enough to get the job done. On the other side, I think Penn State’s athleticism on defense will match up against Iowa well and if they can keep the passing game in check, they’ll be in a good position for the win. I’ll go with my prediction for BSD, Penn State wins 20-16.

So there you have it - another prediction for a tight one in Iowa City. Here’s hoping the Hawkeyes can be the team to come up with the big plays at the right time and emerge with a victory.

Thanks again to Dylan at Black Shoe Diaries. You can follow Dylan on the Twitter machine @DylanCCSports and Black Shoe Diaries @BSDTweets. Be sure to pop over to BSD if you have a minute before the game. They’ve got plenty of quality content on the big matchup that’s worth your time.