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Iowa Football Opponent Preview: Penn State

Can Iowa emerge victorious from the first Top Five matchup played in Kinnick Stadium since 1985?

NCAA Football: Iowa at Penn State Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

“Opportunities multiply as they are seized; they die when neglected.”

-Sun Tzu

For years, Iowa fans have lamented that their beloved program rarely has an opportunity to compete on college football’s biggest stage. With Saturday’s matchup between #3 Iowa and #4 Penn State, the Hawkeye faithful are finally getting what they’ve long hoped for: a chance for the team to catapult itself firmly into the national title conversation. A win against Penn State would silence any questions about the legitimacy of Iowa’s claim as one of the top teams in the sport, and while a loss would not extinguish Iowa’s postseason hopes, it would remove any margin for error for the Hawkeyes to make the playoffs. Win this big game—increase your odds of playing in more marquee matchups as the season progresses. Lose, and risk squandering an opportunity to vault the program to heights not often achieved in Iowa City.

Here are a few key factors to watch for heading into what could be the most anticipated game to be played in Kinnick Stadium in several decades:

1. Can Iowa contain the Penn State passing attack?

The Nittany Lions boast one of the most dynamic aerial attacks in college football, ranking 20th in the country in passing efficiency (162.38) and 26th in passing yards per game (286.8). The elevated play of senior quarterback Sean Clifford has been the biggest driver of Penn State’s growth in this area. Clifford has dramatically improved his accuracy and decision-making this season, posting his highest completion percentage (67.3%) and passing efficiency rating (160.5) of any year since becoming the starter in 2019, all while averaging an impressive 8.7 yards per attempt. Clifford is also a dangerous runner in the open field who can use his legs to gain first downs and to extend plays and create opportunities downfield by forcing opposing defensive backs to cover Penn State’s dangerous receivers for extended periods of time.

Parker Washington and Keandre Lambert-Smith make an impressive duo at wide receiver, but the deadliest Nittany Lion pass catcher is Jahan Dotson, the Big Ten’s leader in receiving touchdowns with eight on the season who has the speed to beat defenders deep or torture them with yards after the catch. Dotson has shaken off the periodic drops that plagued him as a young player and now leads the conference by averaging seven receptions per game while cultivating a reputation as a player capable of making some truly spectacular grabs.

The matchup of Penn State’s passing game against the Iowa pass defense may be the most fascinating of the game. The Hawkeyes lead the country in interceptions with 12, are holding opposing quarterbacks to a Big Ten low passer rating of 96.95, and trail only Ohio State is passes defended per game in the conference (7.2). Iowa’s cornerbacks will have their hands full trying to cover Penn State’s receivers but have so far managed to torment every quarterback they have played this season. Can Clifford continue his efficient play against a defense that forces opposing QBs to consistently hit difficult throws in order to move the ball through the air? If Clifford reverts to the mistake-prone play that weighed down the Penn State offense last season, the Nittany Lions could struggle to put up many points against a stingy Hawkeye defense.

2. Can either team generate consistent production from its running game?

Despite boasting rich histories as elite running teams, neither Iowa nor Penn State have found much success on the ground this season. The Nittany Lions are averaging only 132.6 yards rushing on 3.79 yards per carry despite having a dual-threat quarterback, while the Hawkeyes are rushing for only 126 yards per game on 3.37 yards per game. Iowa’s backs have broken off big runs but have also had far too many rushes for no gain behind an offensive line still trying to find its footing. Meanwhile, Penn State’s Noah Cain is not the same player he was when he ran for 102 yards and a touchdown against Iowa in 2019 and still seems to be slowed by the leg injury he suffered last year. Sophomore Keyvone Lee is Penn State’s most dangerous back and is averaging 6.7 yards per play from scrimmage but is mired in a timeshare with three teammates and has yet to top eight carries in a single game.

Rushing yards should be difficult to come by in this game, especially considering that Iowa and Penn State boast two of the best rushing defenses in the conference (Penn State is giving up 111.6 yards per game while Iowa is surrendering only 87.2). Both teams have excellent linebacking corps, and Penn State has particularly excelled at unleashing its front seven against the Hawkeyes in recent years to close off running lanes and frustrate Iowa’s linemen.

It’s worth watching how each team’s attempts to run the ball impact their performance on 3rd down. Iowa and Penn State are among the worst in the conference in 3rd down conversion rates (Iowa is at 36.23%, Penn State at 35.94%), but while Iowa has generally excelled at converting on 3rd and short, the Nittany Lions have struggled when forced to employ the power running game and have converted just three of their last eleven short yard attempts on 3rd and 4th down. Given the skill of Iowa’s linebackers and disruptive play of Iowa’s interior linemen, there is reason to expect Penn State’s short yardage struggles to continue against the Hawks. Meanwhile, Iowa’s failure to generate positive running plays on early downs could create third-and-long opportunities for a Penn State defense that has uncharacteristically struggled to pressure the quarterback this year (the Nittany Lions have the third-fewest sacks in the conference with eight) to pin its ears back and attack with its pass rush.

If either team can get any consistency from its ground game, it could dramatically open things up for them offensively. If not, this matchup between two of the three best scoring defenses in the nation should live up to its billing as a low-scoring defensive slugfest.

3. Can Penn State’s offense produce big plays without risking turnovers?

Both Penn State’s offense and Iowa’s defense have made a living by generating explosive plays. Penn State’s offense has generated more plays from scrimmage of 40+ yards than any team in the conference (eight), while the Hawkeyes are forcing more turnovers per game (2.4) than any team in the country and turning those takeaways into points (68 of them through five games). Penn State has thus far proven able to create explosive plays while maintaining ball security and has only turned the ball over three times this season, but it’s unclear whether it can do so against a defense as disruptive as Iowa’s.

Can Iowa’s defense do what it has done all season long and limit big offensive plays from its opponent? If so, is Penn State capable of putting together enough long scoring drives of its own to win without risking turnovers which could give Iowa the ball with excellent field position? The Nittany Lions have not needed long, methodical drives to score this season, but Iowa’s defense makes a living on forcing opposing offenses to do just that and capitalizing on mistakes when they fail at this task. Whether Penn State’s offense can play its style of football without playing right into Iowa’s hands could go a long way to deciding the outcome of this game.