The Iowa Hawkeyes are set to face their biggest challenge of the young 2023 season as they travel to Happy Valley for a matchup with #7 Penn State on Saturday night. These two programs, while having spent the majority of their existence not in the same conference, have a storied past and the buds of an early rivalry.
Saturday marks the 32nd meeting between the two teams with Penn State leading the all-time series 17-14. But the series is tied since the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz holds a 9-8 record against PSU. Can the Hawkeyes find some magic to overcome the 14.5-point spread and defeat Penn State once again? Yes! But also no.
Why Iowa Can Beat Penn State
If anyone has any question whether Iowa can beat Penn State in Happy Valley in a whiteout, all they’d need to do is take a stroll down memory lane to see not only that they can, but that the recipe is quite simple and repeatable.
Under coach Ferentz, the Hawkeyes are 5-4 in Happy Valley and 2-2 in such games when the Nittany Lions have been ranked. In virtually every matchup since Ferentz arrived in 1999 has had a common thread: Penn State is the more talented team. That has never seemed to matter.
The model has long been to grind games to a halt when faced with a more talented roster on the other sideline. Perhaps no series has exemplified that as much as Iowa-Penn State. Of the 17 matchups between these two teams with Ferentz on the Iowa sideline, the Hawkeyes are 8-4 when they keep the Nittany Lions under 30 points. They’re just 1-4 in games where PSU tops the 30-point mark.
Coincidentally, Penn State enters Saturday’s matchup on an 11-game streak of topping 30 points - the longest such streak in the nation. However, the Nittany Lions haven’t been able to top that mark against Iowa since 2018. That 2018 PSU win is one of just three games where the Hawkeye defense has given up 30+ points over the last four season. All three have been losses, but two of them came to College Football Playoff teams (Michigan in the 2021 Big Ten Championship Game and Ohio State last season).
How, exactly, does Iowa manage to hold essentially everyone save CFP opponents under 30 points for half a decade? The answer is the stereotypical ‘complementary football.’
Iowa has been 102nd nationally in plays per game over the last five seasons (plus the first three weeks of 2023). While some of that is attributable to simply playing bad offense and being forced off the field early, it is largely due to the style of play with Iowa looking to shorten games by burning clock from start to finish. This season, the Hawkeyes are calling designed runs on 53% of their plays. They rank 109th nationally in plays per game while ranking 52nd in points per game. That’s how Kirk Ferentz wants to operate.
That slower pace is designed to reduce the amount of time the Iowa defense is on the field with opposing offenses, thus limiting the opportunities an opponent has to score. It’s clearly been effective. Over the last five seasons (plus the first three games this year), Iowa has averaged 8th nationally in scoring defense, giving up just over 15 points per game.
This season, the Hawkeye defense comes into Saturday’s matchup at 14th nationally (their lowest rank in the last 5 years) while giving up just 12.3 points per game. Obviously, that is skewed by the level of competition, but it falls directly in line with what we have seen from Iowa for a decade.
The last time these two teams faced off, it was a top-5 matchup in Kinnick. While Iowa was ranked in the top-5, the world expected the Hawkeyes to fall on their face to the high-flying Nittany Lions. PSU came into the matchup averaging 30-points per game on nearly 420 yards of total offense per game. The Hawkeyes held them to 20 with just 280 yards of total offense. They forced four interceptions with three sacks and eventually knocked starting QB Sean Clifford from the game.
Time and again we saw the defense use scheme and discipline to overcome a talent and athleticism gap. They turned turnovers into field position and when combined with stellar special teams play, allowed a moribund offense to put up just enough points to emerge victorious.
Going back to the last time Iowa visited Penn State for a whiteout game, it was a similar story. The Nittany Lions came into the week 4 matchup averaging 30 points and 354 points per game. The Hawkeyes were big underdogs and a relative unknown nationally despite a 3-0 start to the season.
The defense, after giving up scores on the first to PSU drives, held the Nittany Lions to just 10 points and 307 total yards. They created 4 turnovers and added two points of their own via safety. Special teams lived up to their name with Adrian Clayborn’s infamous blocked punt return for a touchdown.
On Penn State’s final 11 possessions, the Iowa defense forced: safety, punt, punt, kneel down, interception, missed FG, blocked punt for TD, interception, fumble, interception, end of game.
This is the way.
Iowa can win on Saturday night by following the time-tested recipe for success. Eat clock with the running game on offense, play fundamentally sound defense allowing PSU to eat clock themselves but forcing FGs instead of TDs, and create timely turnovers to set up short fields or score points. Stranger things have happened in this series.
Why Iowa Can’t Beat Penn State
In true Iowa form, now that we’ve gotten our hopes up, it’s time to crush them. If defense and special teams is the way, heartbreaking losses is the creed. Nobody does misery like Iowa fans.
And that’s what we really should expect on Saturday night. Why? Because defense and special teams only takes you so far. Think back to all those fond memories of 2009 and 2015 or to those big wins against the likes of Penn State or other highly ranked opponents. What do they have in common? They all have some semblance of an offense that was competent enough to put points on the board when given the opportunity.
Watch the highlights of that 2021 top-5 win over Penn State again. Iowa is actually throwing the ball down the field and despite having Brian Ferentz at OC and Spencer Petras at QB, they connected on a handful of shots. Why? They had the likes of Charlie Jones and Keagn Johnson catching passes alongside Nico Ragaini.
Not to take anything away from the weapons Iowa brought in this offseason, but Kaleb Brown is the best athlete they’ve added and he has gone virtually unused to-date. There is a reason for that (and as much as we’re inclined to just chalk that up to Brian’s stupidity, his job is at stake so that ain’t it). And Seth Anderson is solid, but he is not Charlie Jones or Keagan Johnson.
Even at tight end, the Hawkeyes were hoping to have Sam LaPorta-lite with Luke Lachey. He’s now done for the year. So Cade McNamara is going to be locked on Erick All play in and play out while the Penn State defense sticks to him like white on.. well a Penn State fan on Saturday night.
What does that leave Iowa with? Well, they wanted to run the ball anyway. But not without starting RB Kaleb Johnson and certainly not without both Johnson and Jaziun Patterson, who frankly showed the most explosion of any back on the roster and is hands down the best in pass protection.
The Hawkeyes are walking into a a good old-fashioned duel, but they’re doing it with a knife in their hand. In the past, they’ve been able to maneuver their way close enough to cut PSU’s throat, but they simply don’t have the manpower to do that with three of their top offensive weapons out and a defense that is still finding its way.
In every one of those big wins, we’ve seen the Hawkeyes cause havoc on the defensive side of the ball. Six seconds of hell. That relies on pressure up front so Iowa can drop seven in coverage and make opposing QBs pay for their mistakes. The Hawkeyes have athletes in the secondary, but the front four has shown almost no ability to generate pressure on their own with just three sacks through three games.
In a world where Iowa cannot generate pressure up front and thus cannot generate turnovers, the offense is left doing more than trying to run. We’ve seen in recent years what sort of disaster that can spell for a Brian Ferentz-coached offense. Put simply, in that world, the Hawkeyes are in a world of hurt. They simply can’t win without a Herculean effort from defense and special teams.
Now, will we actually see a Herculean effort from Iowa’s defense and special teams Saturday night? It’s possible. If so, there is just enough there on offense to get the Hawkeyes over the hump. But as has been the case in each of these big time matchups in the past, Iowa has virtually no room for error. They need to get the bounces and take advantage of any opportunities that fall into their lap.
The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions are set to kick off at 6:30pm CT under the lights at Beaver Stadium. Saturday’s game will be broadcast on CBS.