This is a benchmark week for Penn State football 2011. Unfortunately it has to be against Iowa. But that's the card Penn State has been dealt for this critical hand. You could argue that last week was a tide-turner of a game. Or the Temple game. Or the Alabama game. You could argue those, but I won't, because they weren't even close to the level this game is on against Iowa.
It's not he first time, either. In 2004, Iowa became the single most depressing memory from arguably the worst offense in Penn State football history. In 2008, Iowa drove a splintery wooden stake into the heart of Penn State's return to the top. In 2009, Iowa once again toyed with Penn State, only to end up crushing the very soul of a program. Two of those examples came at home. The most painful was in Kinnick Stadium. So it kind of equals out. Even last season, as Penn State struggled to maintain its spot in the top 25, there was the same old story replayed against the Hawkeyes. The story was one of maddening miscues, missed opportunities, and woulda-shoulda-coulda for Penn State.
This weekend, the show is coming back to town. As it has in past editions, Penn State's game against Iowa could propel this season in any of three directions. Here they are...
Prosperity: Penn State solidly beats Iowa... Honestly, the only way I could imagine Penn State beating Iowa without any sort of "yeah, but..." feeling following the game would come at the hands of one, single quarterback leading the offense through the entire game. Be it Matt McGloin or Rob Bolden, it has to be one for Penn State to send this season on the path to major success. Even if they start out swapping in and out for a series or two, it has to stop after the first two or three total drives. Let's say Penn State plays relatively mistake-free football, runs the ball decently, avoids another quarterback race to the bottom, and doesn't leave the defense on the field for 35 minutes or more. This sets up the Nittany Lions to run the table through October's final game against Illinois. Penn State could be 8-1 at that stage and looking very good to pull off wins against one of the "big three" against Nebraska, at Ohio State or even at Wisconsin. A 9-3 final record is almost guaranteed if Penn State beats Iowa this weekend.
Purgatory: Penn State wins or loses a very sloppy, uneasy game... A win is a win, but there's the very real possibility that nothing is in fact resolved following this Iowa game. Just like the wins over Temple and Indiana, Penn State could be held in a state of suspension--purgatory, if you would--in which there is little guaranteed the rest of the season. Anything would be possible, from 5-7 to 8-4. Not playing clean football or not fixing at least one of the major issues--quarterback carousel and offensive line--facing the team right now does nothing to help win a game after Purdue next weekend. It also does nothing to set this program up for the bowl game and beyond.*
- Destruction: Penn State badly loses to Iowa... Sharpen the pitchforks, fellas. If Penn State is embarrassed at home (again) this year to Iowa (again) the rabble will turn into a raging mob quickly. Turn off the internet for at least 12 hours after the game, because it will be a sheet of pure glass following the nuclear meltdown. What games would Penn State be sure to win the rest of the season, if an Iowa team that lost to Iowa State beats Penn State soundly in Beaver Stadium? And remember, "soundly" doesn't mean a 20-point or worse loss. It could just be a moral domination not unlike 2009. Northwestern would be a toss up; Illinois would end up more likely a loss than a win; Ohio State and Nebraska go from winnable to hardly; and Wisconsin goes from "so you're saying there's a chance" to Blowout Boulevard. The quarterback situation would remain the hot mess it is today. Silas Redd still won't have any real support form the blockers or the rest of the offense. The defense will be left on the field way too long and become demoralized. And a bowl game anywhere outside of Detroit will be in serious doubt.
*I'm going to get killed in the comments for mentioning 2012. Yes, I friggin' know it's not a time to worry about next season already. But if you don't see how this game does have an effect on the trajectory of the program for at least the next full year, you're not helping yourself argue here.