Three games into the 2023 season, the Iowa football team is undefeated and untested. After tomorrow’s road game against #7 Penn State, the Hawkeyes will have faced their most difficult test yet of the young season; whether they will remain undefeated after this challenge remains to be seen. While a loss against Penn State would be a poor start to conference play for a team hoping to contend for a Big Ten West title, it would be survivable given how manageable Iowa’s remaining schedule is. However, a victory on Saturday would send expectations for this team sky high and create reasonable questions about whether Iowa can not only win the West but compete with the best of the Big Ten East as well.
Iowa’s history against Penn State suggests a competitive game. Four of the past five games played between the two teams have been decided by one score, including Iowa’s 23-20 instant classic victory in a matchup of two top five teams in 2021. Whether Iowa can extend their winning streak against Penn State to three games or suffers its first defeat of the season, Hawkeye fans should have a much clearer picture of how good their team really is by the end of Saturday night.
Here are a few key factors to watch for in tomorrow’s game:
1. Can Iowa’s defense find an answer to Drew Allar?
Former five-star recruit Drew Allar was touted as Penn State’s answer at quarterback from the moment he arrived on campus, and the big-armed sophomore has not disappointed during his first season as a starter. Allar is completing 67% of his passes on the season and has yet to throw an interception, but his ability to attack opposing defenses downfield has been even more impressive than his ability to manage games. Allar possesses incredible deep ball accuracy and has shown that he can hit targets downfield, even when on the run.
Allar also has the benefit of having an excellent supporting cast around him who can make his job easier. Keandre Lambert-Smith is a reliable big play threat at wide receiver, and former Kent State star Dante Cephas has proven he’s capable of far more than the 71 receiving yards he has produced thus far. Meanwhile, with an excellent running back duo of Kaytron Allen and Nicholas Singleton to give the Nittany Lion offense balance, defenses are unable to specifically key in on stopping the pass and are often left susceptible to Allar attacking deep off of play action.
Allar’s big play ability should be particularly concerning to Iowa given their struggles defending the deep ball last week. In cornerback Jermari Harris’ first game action since the 2022 Citrus Bowl, the Hawkeyes surrendered a 64-yard touchdown pass resulting from a miscommunication between Harris and safety Xavier Nwankpa and avoided giving up another long touchdown due to a Harris miscue only after being bailed out by a penalty. Harris was still listed as a first team cornerback on this week’s depth chart, but whether he or freshman Deshaun Lee gets the start against Penn State, Iowa’s defense must avoid the kind of mistakes it made last week it if hopes to escape Happy Valley with a win.
Similarly, Iowa must find a way to get consistent pressure on Allar. While Illinois only managed to sack Allar once last week, the pressure generated from the Illini front did manage to make Allar uncomfortable for most of the game, resulting in the sophomore’s worst passing performance of the season (16-33 for 208 yards and no touchdowns). This will be a tall order for Iowa’s defense, which has generated only three sacks this season (fewer than all but six teams in college football), especially as it goes up against a Penn State offensive line that has allowed only two sacks through three games. If Iowa’s front four cannot generate consistent pressure on its own, it may be up to Phil Parker to dial up creative blitz packages to confuse Penn State’s young quarterback and hope the Hawkeye secondary can hold up on the back end should Allar manage to avoid the rush.
2. Can Iowa establish the run?
While Iowa has a history of winning defensive, low-scoring battles against Penn State (anyone else remember the 6-4 game in 2004?), the Hawkeye offense will need to actually score some points if they hope to win this game. The Nittany Lions have scored 30+ points in their last ten games, the longest such active streak in college football. Unfortunately, Iowa’s offense will have to keep pace with Penn State with several key contributors unavailable due to injury, including leading receiver Luke Lachey and two of their three leading rushers in Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson.
For Iowa to have a chance at upsetting Penn State, they must achieve balance on offense to keep the opposing defense honest, which means establishing an effective run game. This is especially true given the strength of Penn State’s pass defense. Cornerback Kalen King has developed into one of the nation’s top shutdown defensive backs, and the Nittany Lion back seven is responsible for five interceptions and one pick-six through three games this year. Furthermore, Penn State boasts one of the top pass rushes in the Big Ten, trailing only Nebraska for the most sacks in the conference with ten. Given Iowa’s passing game struggles this season and the absence of McNamara’s security blanket in Lachey, it is difficult to imagine Iowa having much success through the air without an effective running game to divert the attention of Penn State’s defense and dial back their pass rush a bit.
Iowa will rely on junior running back Leshon Williams to power the Hawkeye ground game on the heels of his career-high 145-yard rushing yards against Western Michigan.
However, it is unclear whether this performance was a one-off powered by uncharacteristically strong run blocking against an overwhelmed MAC opponent or a sign that Williams has really turned a corner. Last week was Williams’ only 100-yard game in his three seasons of action at Iowa, and he is averaging only 3.9 yards per carry in his career against Big Ten opponents. True freshmen Kamari Moulton and Terrell Washington Jr. both looked impressive against Western Michigan, but are totally untested against a defense of Penn State’s caliber, which is holding opponents to only 3.29 yards per carry this year. The performance of Iowa’s running backs may not even matter if the offensive line, which struggled with run blocking in Weeks 1-2 this season, cannot open holes against a stout Penn State front led by linebackers Curtis Jacobs and Abdul Carter.
With rainy conditions likely on Saturday night, Iowa’s ability to move the ball on the ground could turn be absolutely essential if it hopes to stay in this game. If the Hawkeyes can run the ball well enough to keep the Penn State defense honest, it could make it easier for Cade McNamara and Erick All to recapture the excellent play that propelled their team to a win during their last trip to Penn State.
3. Can either team get points from their defense or special team?
Few teams in college football have been more effective at creating turnovers in recent years than Iowa and Penn State. The Hawkeyes led the nation in pick-sixes last season with four thanks in large part to star cornerback Cooper DeJean, and Iowa has already notched another pick six and safety this season. Meanwhile, Penn State has the second-best turnover margin in the country with +7, thanks in large part to their performance last week in which they generated five turnovers leading to 20 Nittany Lion points. Between the bad weather expected for this game and Iowa’s frequent struggles to move the ball against good defenses, this game may ultimately come down to whether either defense is able to generate turnovers and score points either off defensive touchdowns or the short fields resulting from these takeaways.
However, special teams might also provide Iowa with a chance to steal points. Iowa has been extremely close to busting big kick and punt returns this season, and special teams coach LeVar Woods has been known to dial up some creative plays against marquee opponents, including this fake field goal that produced a touchdown at Penn State in 2018.
Whether DeJean can post his first pick-six of the season or one of the Hawkeyes manages to pull an Adrian Clayborn and score off a blocked Penn State kick, Iowa’s ability to create chaos with its defense and special teams (and protect the ball on offense and prevent Penn State from doing the same) could present the Hawkeyes’ best chance at emerging from this game undefeated.