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2023 Hawkeye Football Opponent Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

The Hawkeyes have won two in a row after the Nittany Lions rattled of six straight

NCAA Football: Penn State Spring Game Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year again: I crack open my trusty laptop which still has Yahoo! as the default search engine and begin the football previews. Up next are the Penn State Nittany Lions who figure to be the toughest opponent on Iowa’s schedule.

5 Ws

Who: Penn State Nittany Lions (University Park, PA; Big Ten Conference)
Head Coach: James Franklin 78-36 (.684) in 9 years at PSU, 102-51 (.667) in 12 seasons overall

What: Iowa’s first game on CBS in decades

When: September 23rd, 2023; 7p God’s Time

Where: Beaver Stadium; State College, PA

Why: they have rotated onto Iowa’s schedule as determined by the Big Ten Conference

4 Stats

4 11-win seasons: Over the last 7 years, Franklin has had Penn State humming with a 64 wins, tied for 10th in the nation. Last year, they bounced back after an underwhelming couple of years, capped with their third New Year’s Six bowl win.

+17.5: PSU was top 20 in scoring offense & defense, culminating in the 6th best scoring margin in the nation.

3.2 sacks/game: Part of what keeps their defense in the upper echelon is their hectic front seven which attacks the backfield. Last year’s 3.2 sacks/game ranked 8th in the nation. Iowa took advantage of their aggressiveness with the game-winning score in 2021 but they’ll be a tough test for an offensive line which hasn’t played together yet.

83 passes deflected: With their emphasis on getting to the QB, the Nittany Lions leverage more press coverage to force early throws into tight windows. It compares incredibly favorably to Iowa’s number (46) but really, it’s a function of what each team asks their guys to do.

3 Guys

Nicholas Singleton (#10, RB, So., 6’0”, 228 lbs): As a freshman, Singleton amassed over 1000 rushing yards at 6.8 yards/carry. The latter was good for second in the conference. He added 14 touchdowns, 12 on the ground and one for a kick return.

Just insane highlights. If the defense makes a single mistake, he can house it. He’s got the size & strength to get weak tacklers off him and the speed to get to the edge. Just listen to how sad Brad Nessler was when he got behind the ESS EEE SEE speed of Auburn.

He saved his best work for last to help the Nittany Lions get the win in Pasadena. His 80+ yarder had his yards per carry at a cool 17.1/rush.

Abdul Carter (#11, LB, So, 6’3”, 249 lbs): Penn State’s leading returning tackler also added 10.5 behind the line of scrimmage and 6.5 sacks. For good measure he forced two fumbles.

While many of his highlights come as part of a blitzer in PSU’s scheme, it’s worth noting just how quickly he gets into the backfield through the center of opponents’ offensive line. It was a scab opponents picked at against Iowa time and again last year.

Kalen King (#4, CB, Jr., 5’11”, 190 lbs): Those passes deflected? King was the guy who led the way with a mind-boggling 16 last season to lead the conference. He added 3 interceptions as the guy opposite Joey Porter, Jr.

2 Cases

Taking a look at games where Brian Ferentz was offensive coordinator to identify best and worst cases in his “Climb to 325”

Best case - 41 points: Iowa’s 2020 reached a climax in an empty stadium against the Nits, as they finally ended a six-game losing streak punctuated by Daviyon Nixon’s exclamation point. The 41 simultaneously seems inflated and deflated, as Iowa went into prevent mode after a third quarter touchdown from Mekhi Sargent put them up 24.

Worst case - 12 points: The flipside is looking at 2019’s arguably low point. Iowa busted out the banana peels and struggled mightily on offense for the second straight game after being held to three points at Michigan. Brandon Smith’s fourth quarter touchdown breathed life into Iowa’s chances before a failed two-point conversion and decision to kick deep sealed Iowa’s fate.

1 Question

What is Iowa’s ceiling?

I know I’ve been a little surly about Iowa’s 2023 prospects but if we are being honest, Iowa should skate through their first three games and put some points on the board. If they were any other team with any other offensive coordinator, the optimism of talent influx via portal would feel real to me dammit.

But until I see that happen, I’m gonna be cynical and perhaps unnecessarily. BUT, the possibilities that arise from being the fly in the ointment on a Penn State white out game? It’s the first “just win, baby” game of the season. If Iowa can go into Happy Valley and come away like they did in 2009, it’ll be enough to make me think anything is truly possible with this team.

For that to happen, the defense will need to be stellar, per usual. The offense will need to be competent (limit three & outs and turnovers) and timely (don’t lose contact). All it takes is one play when these teams play a game tight. Adrian Clayborn in 2009. Nico Ragaini in 2021. Those plays have also gone against Iowa (Trace McSorely in 2017 and again in 2018) but that’s the fun of it.

A win will have me thinking Iowa can make the last five years of underperformance is worth it with a shot at making it to the playoff. A tight loss still keeps the division & conference titles at play. A big loss? Technically, still the same as a tight loss but with a little more staring into the abyss.