Penn State looks to keep the momentum from its 2-0 start in the Big Ten Saturday through the bye week, and they head to Kinnick Stadium Saturday to play a Iowa team that's turned around its season after a hideous start. So, as always, we reached out to the foremost authority on the Lions' opposition, and our friends at BHGP are just that. Thanks to Patrick Vint for lending a helping hand in enlightening us about the surging Hawkeyes.
So thanks a ton, Patrick, and remember to check out BHGP all season long to stay up to date on Iowa, or just if you feel like reading some of the funniest content out there. Also, be sure to check back later this afternoon, to read my answers to their questions about this Nittany Lion team.
Black Shoe Diaries: Could Iowa's nonconference have gone any worse? How does a team with as much talent as Iowa lose to Central Michigan, and barely squeak by Northern Iowa and Northern Illinois? What went wrong?
Black Heart Gold Pants: I suppose we could have lost to Northern Iowa, too--that was a legitimate concern in the wake of the ISU loss and the lack of scoring against both ISU and Northern Illinois--but otherwise, no, it was pretty bad. I firmly believe that Kirk Ferentz treats the non-conference season as a glorified preseason, used to work out kinks, give young guys a chance to play, and divulge as little as possible about our offense and defense to the Big Ten. It's not that he doesn't want to win the games, but he's going to do it with as little of the playbook as he can, so when the execution breaks down (as it did on the offensive side against Iowa State) or weird stuff happens (like the late rally by Central Michigan), Iowa's going to lose. At least once every September--Iowa has played a full schedule in September and finished undefeated just once in Ferentz's thirteen seasons--that's precisely what happens.
BSD: On the flipside, what--aside from getting Minnesota in week 5--has gone right in the last couple games to help Iowa get to 2-0 and the top of the Legends division?
BHGP: It's been defense and running game for Iowa through two, just as it's always been. The first half of the Minnesota game--like the first half of Michigan last season, like the first half of Michigan State in 2010--was a direct response to an absurd loss the weekend before. Iowa pounced on Minnesota from the opening kick, blew open holes in their defensive front so big you could land a plane through them, put up 24 in a hurry and could have scored many more. Michigan State was a classic Ferentz game. Iowa had an advantage at kicker and significant advantage at punter, and Iowa quickly determined that Maxwell could not beat them through the air, so they stacked up against Bell and played hyperconservative offense. Almost every change of possession gained them yardage, and they finally got a chance to cash one of those possessions in for a touchdown.
BSD: Mark Weisman has been the best story of the Big Ten season thusfar, but he's dealing with an ankle injury. Two questions: How has he been able to be so successful, and what's his status look like for Saturday?
BHGP: Weisman has been incredibly interesting. He's not particularly fast--he breaks into the defensive backfield routinely and is almost always run down from behind--but he's quick and strong and, most importantly, decisive at the line of scrimmage. Iowa still runs the zone scheme almost exclusively, and it requires a back who can identify the hole and get to it before it closes. Weisman is as good as we've seen at doing that since Shonn Greene. He's also 235 lbs. and stays north-south, so he's a real problem for linebackers and a nightmare for defensive backs.
[Ed. note: Weisman has been medically cleared to play Saturday, but is still a question mark for the game.]
BSD: From the outside looking in, it seems that James Vandenberg has regressed considerably from a year ago. How much of that is due to the loss of Marvin McNutt and three starters on the OL?
BHGP: McNutt hurts. Last season, Marvin caught a higher percentage of his team's completions than any receiver in the conference, and he was a deep threat that this team lacks at the moment. The offensive line hasn't been a problem since the first week, though I do question just how much confidence Vandenberg has in them to protect him. The biggest issue for Vandenberg hasn't necessarily been personnel, though. It's been coaching. Ken O'Keefe finally left Iowa last season, and Ferentz hired Greg Davis (formerly of Texas) as his replacement. Vandenberg has spent the last eight months shifting from a basic, often simplistic, passing game--basic, set patterns, almost exclusively seven step drops--to a system based on sight reads that requires a lot more coordination between quarterback and receiver and demands Vandenberg vary his footwork from play to play. He's struggled mightily, and last week's game--where he opened with a near-interception and threw a screen pass right to a defensive lineman three plays later--was the closest thing we've seen to an admission that the staff is going to cut back on the passing game dramatically.
BSD: The defense has had an up-and-down season, but Saturday, it held Andrew Maxwell to 12/31 passing and the Michigan offense to 3 field goals on 4 trips inside the 10. How does the Hawkeye D match up with the Bill O'Brien offense?
BHGP: I honestly have no idea. Iowa's done a great job of limiting big plays, forcing turnovers, and adjusting on the fly. The biggest problem is that Iowa's entire philosophy--stop the run, stop the big play, contain the quarterback and make him throw, get off the field on third and medium--doesn't really effect Penn State. PSU is already last in the conference in running offense. They already have a quarterback who stands in the pocket and throws the ball. They're already content to complete fourteen passes for a score. They go for it on fourth down all the time. Iowa's going to have to come up with something new this week--I'd suspect some interior blitzing and stunting, just to throw off McGloin in the pocket--but until that happens, I don't know what's going to happen.
BSD: How do you see this one going? Penn State hasn't won in Kinnick since 1999--do they end the streak?
BHGP: Four things: (1) This team faced a bigger challenge in East Lansing last week and inexplicably won. I know PSU has played well the last four weeks, but it's still a home game for a team that has struggled on the road the last few years. (2) Iowa has more institutional knowledge of Bill O'Brien than most, given that Brian Ferentz coached for BOB last year and Kirk Ferentz coached with O'Brien's mentor. (3) The last time Iowa played a Ted Roof defense, they put up 55 points. (4) Really young Kirk Ferentz teams like this one are kind of an organic thing. Sometimes, up is down for them, left is right, red is blue. Other times, it clicks. In the second half last week, it was clicking. If that carries over to this week, Iowa's in good shape. If it doesn't, this game could get ugly. I've got a strange amount of confidence in this team after last week, given that they lost to Central Michigan and their quarterback is playing as poorly as any Iowa quarterback in twelve years. It's enough for me to predict a 23-14 Iowa win, so long as Weisman is playing (and I really think he will). If Weisman's out, all bets are off.
Thanks again, Patrick, and remember, check BHGP later to see what I had to say when they put me on the hot seat, and all season long.