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2021 opponent preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

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The Nittany Lions struggled early in the season before ripping off four straight double-digit wins

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

It’s not often that Iowa will go five games without playing a team they faced the season prior - a side-effect of having a protected out-of-conference rivalry. With the Penn State Nittany Lions coming to town, they’re looking to reassert the dominance they recaptured in the 2010s, going 6-1 from 2010-2019.

Their head coach remains James Franklin, though his offense has dipped since the 2017 high point of 41.1 points/game. Losing Joe Moorhead, Saquon Barkley, and Trace McSorely will do that. Much of 2020 (and even portions of 2019) were a function of quarterback instability as both Sean Clifford and Will Levis showed promise but struggled as well. Levis has since transferred to Kentucky so maybe Clifford can regain some of his 2019 form (23-7 TD-to-INT ratio). They also bring in Mike Yurcich from Texas, an offense which averaged 43 PPG, as the new OC.

The defense will look to bounce back from a millennium-high PPG allowance. Seriously, I got bored trying to figure out what season they allowed more than last season’s 27.7 and I imagine it extends much further than 2000 considering Joe Paterno’s emphasis on that side of the ball. The group turned things around after yielding 41 to Iowa last season and held opponents to just 17.3 PPG in their four wins.

This is also the first opponent preview I’m doing with the benefit of Phil Steele’s preview guide. You can find that here if you so choose. Anyways, he has them as the team most likely to improve in all the land on the basis of their YPG differential (+102) and general ability to accumulate talent.

Penn State schedule ahead of Iowa

9/4: @ Wisconsin
9/11: v. Ball State
9/18: v. Auburn
9/25: v. Villanova
10/2: v. Indiana

There is probably no more important game in college football’s Week 1 than Penn State heading to Madison to take on Bucky. Sure, Georgia/Clemson has the panache, but no game could have the national or conference storylines of PSU/Wisky. Neither Auburn nor Indiana will be walks in the park so at minimum, Penn State will come to Iowa City battle-tested.

Three guys

Jahan Dotson (WR, 5’11”, 184 lbs, Sr): There is no returning player who is a greater big play threat than Dotson. He had six of Penn State’s eight longest plays, and led the conference in receiving yards & touchdowns, yet was voted as just third team all-conference. Against Iowa, he’s caught 12 passes for 179 yards in three games. He also serves as a punt returner with a career average of 21.3 yards/return, with nine last year for 197 yards and a score.

Dotson is used all over the field and able to take a screen or hitch the distance. He displays strong ball skills - his one-handed back shoulder catch against OSU sticks out in the above highlight - despite his slight frame. He also uses his speed & route-running to get behind defenders, as he did against Iowa for a long TD last season.

Ellis Brooks (LB, 6’1”, 235 lbs, RS Sr): Brooks led the Nittany Lions in tackles (60) during 2020, his first season as a starter. He added 5.5 for loss and a sack, as well. Highlights are a smidge tough to come by, but early in their season, he would look out of place on fakes. He ameliorated himself alright in the OSU game, though, notching 10 tackles. Against Iowa, he had just two stops, though.

Jaquan Brisker (S, 6’1”, 204, Sr+): In a defensive backfield which is already bring back three starters, Brisker’s return for a fifth season elevates their potential. Though he had just one interception and five passes deflected, he offers much more to the Nittany Lion defense than good pass coverage.

His ability as a run defender sticks out in his highlights, diagnosing where the ball is going and stopping it as soon as he can, from either outside of the box or as the 8th man in the front. He also shows ability in man-to-man coverage against slot receivers and tight ends.

Assorted Commentary

Do the 2020s flip back to the Hawkeyes in the rivalry?

The matchups between these two teams have broken down pretty one-sidedly over time.

  • Pre-PSU-in Big Ten: PSU 5, Iowa 3
  • 1993-1999: PSU 4, Iowa 1
  • 2000-2010: Iowa 8, PSU 1
  • 2011-2020: PSU 6, Iowa 1

I would love for the 2020s to resemble the era of dominance Iowa had over the Nittany Lions but I am pessimistic for a couple reasons. 1) The new crossover opponent will be Rutgers starting in 2022, so these two teams will face off just twice over the next six years. 2) Last season looks like a total anomaly of a season for Penn State under Franklin.

The Nittany Lions have gotten absolutely cooking since 2016, with 11 wins in three of the five seasons with a fourth at 9-4 (2018). Their scoring offense and scoring defense in 2020 were decade-lows. Most notably, All-American Micah Parsons opted out on the defensive side and left PSU catching up on that front.

But they turned it around with their four straight 10+ point Ws to close the season (@ Michigan, @ Rutgers, v. MSU, v. Illinois). Sure, those teams were the dregs of the 2020 Big Ten season but you can only play who’s on your schedule.

So I’m not feeling so hot about Iowa carrying their 2020 result into this season.

Who wins hidden yardage?

Phil Steele has Tory Taylor & Charlie Jones as first team all conference punter and punt returner in his guide and that feels appropriate. Yet Dotson is right behind Jones and arguably a little shiftier in big play ability. Will Penn State be able to duke it out when kicking it back to Iowa?

Will an RB2 emerge behind Tyler Goodson?

Goodson is, unquestionably, Iowa’s #1 back. But losing Mekhi Sargent feels like a loss which won’t be felt until it is. Sargent had ~50% of the carries as Goodson and achieved a higher YPC. Right now, Iowa doesn’t have any clear back who can fill his do-it-all type of role.

Highlighting Sargent’s abilities are two past performances against Penn State when he accumulated 101 & 91 yards (2020 & 2018) on 31 carries between the two. With the game very likely to be played in the 20s, it’ll be imperative for someone to have filled the gap he left. Otherwise, it’ll place significant burden in Goodson for the second half of the season.