The Iowa Hawkeyes are set to travel to Happy Valley to take on the Penn State Nittany Lions in their Big Ten conference opener on Saturday. While Iowa and PSU have played numerous times since Kirk Ferentz arrived in Iowa City more than two decades ago, it’s been a couple years since these two teams have faced off and both rosters have had meaningful turnover in that time frame.
In the words of the wise and sage-like Big Tom Callahan, you can get a good look at a t-bone by sticking your head up a bull’s rear end, but wouldn’t you rather take the butcher’s word for it?
So rather than sticking our head up anyone’s rear end, we’re asking our friends over at Black Shoe Diaries for their words on the Penn State Nittany Lions. We were joined by Brian Bennett over at BSD to talk all things PSU this week. Here’s a look at our conversation.
BHGP: QB Drew Allar is off to a hot start, completing 67% of his passes for 737 yards with four TDs and no interceptions through three games. What has made him so efficient thus far and how do you see PSU attacking this Iowa defense through the air?
BSD: Allar has lived up to the expectations that Penn State fans had for the 5-star recruit. He’s made good decisions and has a strong arm. Now, he did have some issues last Saturday against Illinois, completing less than 50 percent of his passes for the first time. Part of that was scheme - Illinois played a deep safety the whole game and mixed coverages underneath and his receivers struggled to get separation when it was against man. Part of that was an injury as second-leading receiver Harrison Wallace was out. Part of that was drops - Penn State had a couple killer ones on Saturday including what would have been a tough catch on a perfectly placed ball in the endzone. And still part of that was just being a first-time starter - he missed his leading receiver running wide open for what would have been an easy score.
James Franklin cut off a question earlier this week when he was asked about Allar making his first Whiteout start. Franklin’s point was that the training wheels were off and questions about “Drew’s first whatever” are not worth asking. Well, I disagree. I’m curious how his first start against a Phil Parker-coached defense will go. I think the game plan will be to not ask him to do too much. So, he’ll need his skill guys to play to the potential they’ve shown in flashes or on the recruiting trail. Franklin has heaped tons of praise on the tight ends. They’ve been quiet thus far. The wide receivers were the biggest question mark for a lot of us in the offseason. They - especially Keandre Lambert-Smith - were good in the opener against West Virginia, but especially bad last week against Illinois.
BHGP: Alongside Allar, the Nittany Lions have a pair of backs in Kaytron Allen and Nick Singleton that are averaging 5.0 and 4.3 yards per carry respectively in a near-even split of carries. How have they found success to-date, what are their similarities/differences, and how does QB Beau Pribula factor into the running game with 20 rushes of his own through 3 games?
BSD: Starting with Singleton, there’s a lot of hand wringing in Nittany Lion land about his lack of explosive plays on the ground. He averaged nearly seven yards per carry as a freshman and him scampering 87 yards for a score in the Rose Bowl was one of the highlight plays of the season. He did have a pair of big catches out of the backfield against Illinois. Kaytron Allen is known as “Fatman”, but I wouldn’t categorize him as thunder to Singleton’s lightning. Allen is a tough inside runner, but certainly has some burst. He’s currently leading Penn State in rushing and easily could have been a co-Big Ten freshman of the year with Singleton last year. Penn State has run the ball just fine with these two guys, though they seemed to almost stubbornly run at the strength of the Illinois defense on Saturday. When they used some misdirection and got outside - like Kansas did in their win against the Illini - the Lions had success.
As for Pribula, he is drawing a lot of comparisons to former Hawkeye killer Trace McSorley - even wearing No. 9. There have been whispers of a “Pribula Package” where he might show up and run some read option, etc. I just don’t see it happening. Offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich has shown no indication of putting two quarterbacks on the field at once or using sub packages at that position in his years in Happy Valley.
BHGP: On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State has been able to get after opposing quarterbacks pretty aggressively with 10 sacks through three games. How do you expect the Nittany Lions to generate pressure on Saturday and who are the names Hawkeye fans should know?
BSD: Manny Diaz’s defense is going to do two things above all: blitz and play a lot of guys. I mean this - a lot of blitzes and a lot of players. To be honest, Penn State fans became so accustomed to “bend but don’t break”, even after the transition from Paterno to O’Brien to Franklin. But Diaz loves to bring pressure and trusts that secondary - that I’ll get to in the next question.
In terms of names, I won’t bore you with all of them. But I will highlight a trio of defensive ends. Chop Robinson, Adisa Isaac, and Dani Dennis-Sutton are players who haven’t necessarily gotten credit for the sacks, but how Iowa’s offensive line handles them will go a long way to deciding the game. I also have to mention sophomore linebacker Abdul Carter. He’ll wear No. 11 and the LaVar Arrington and Micah Parsons comparisons will be made regularly.
BHGP: Beyond the sack numbers, the PSU secondary has been tremendous at creating turnovers. Nowhere was that more obvious than in the win over Illinois where the Illini turned it over 5 times, but the Lions have created 7 turnovers on the year. How have they been so successful generating turnovers and how do you expect them to cause mayhem on Saturday night?
BSD: One guy who didn’t get an interception is the most important - Kalen King. He’s the preseason All-American and quarterbacks haven’t thrown his way. That, coupled with Diaz’s blitzing, has meant chances for Penn State’s other defensive backs to make plays. They probably could have made a couple more on Saturday against Illinois.
Knocking on wood as I type this, but Penn State’s turnover margin has been central to its dominance dating back to last November. Even with a first-year starting quarterback, the Lions haven’t turned it over this year - though they’ve certainly been lucky a couple times.
BHGP: OK, prediction time. Our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook have this one as Penn State -14.5 with an over/under that has been leaking lower all week to 40 total points. How do you see this one playing out and what’s your final score prediction?
BSD: I’ve checked out your site and know the 2009 comparisons are there because of the rankings and the weather. As the resident Black Shoe Diaries historian, I can definitely understand that. Ignoring Kinnick magic, I’ve seen Iowa come to Beaver Stadium as an underdog against truly good Penn State teams and win in 1996 and 2002 and 2009. I’m fearful of this game and long viewed it as Penn State’s third toughest on the schedule. However, I see Iowa’s injuries on offense being a deciding factor. Franklin is 4-2 against Ferentz with four of those six contests being decided in the fourth quarter. This one is, too. Penn State gets enough offense though its streak of 10 straight games scoring at least 30 points comes to an end. Penn State 24, Iowa 13.
So there you have it - the Hawkeyes hang around, but don’t have enough fire power to keep up with Penn State late. Hard to argue with that too much.
Thanks again to Brian over at BSD. Be sure to swing by Black Shoe Diaries before we get to Saturday night. They’ve got a ton of Iowa coverage up this week and getting a behind the scenes take is always interesting.