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Game Preview: Penn State vs. Iowa

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Iowa invades Happy Valley for a rare November prime-time clash.

Penn State v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Penn State will look to win its fifth straight against a well-rested Iowa Hawkeyes squad under the lights of Beaver Stadium.

(12)Penn State (6-2, 4-1) vs. Iowa (5-3, 3-2)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State -7

TV: BTN- Kevin Kugler (play-by-play), Matt Millen (analyst), Lisa Byington (sideline)

Weather: Cool, with temperatures dipping into the 40s for kickoff and a slight chance of rain.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 20-14, 3rd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 44-29, 6th Year

VS. IOWA: First Meeting

Kirk Ferentz:

IOWA RECORD: 132-89, 18th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 144-111, 21st Year

VS. PENN STATE: 8-4

...NOW THE FUN PART

IOWA OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE

Iowa runs a fairly traditional pro-style offense- run the ball well to set up the pass without many gimmicks. Basically, what most people think about when they picture a Big Ten offense designed to play smashmouth football in the cold weather. With that being said, the key to Iowa’s offense is its dual attack out of the backfield with junior Akrum Wadley and senior LeShun Daniels Jr. Both have near identical stats on the season, although Wadley has the higher average per attempt (7.5 yards vs. 5.2 yards) of the two. One thing is certain- when the duo find success on the ground, Iowa wins football games. When they struggle, the results aren’t too favorable for the Hawkeyes. In Iowa’s five victories, Wadley averages 107.4 yards per contest, while Daniels averages 97.6. On the other hand, in Iowa’s three losses on the year Daniels has 45.3 yards and Wadley only 33. Wadley is the more productive out of the backfield and should be a factor on third downs.

Fortunately, Penn State’s run defense has vastly improved since the first half of the Minnesota game in week five, as bscaff pointed out earlier in the week. With the return of Jason Cabinda and Brandon Bell to regular minutes, it should continue to improve. Iowa will certainly try to establish the run early, and the Nittany Lions best bet for victory is to shut it down and force the Hawkeyes to air it out against Penn State’s stellar secondary.

Iowa has an experienced quarterback in C.J. Beathard, who while having a solid season, has seen a slight dropoff from 2015 when he lead Iowa to an undefeated regular season- and if not for an epic fourth quarter touchdown drive by Michigan State, a trip to the College Football Playoffs. Beathard is a typical drop-back quarterback that doesn’t do much damage at all with his legs, managing positive rushing yardage in just three games this season. On the season, he’s connected on 118 of 201 passing attempts (58.7 percent) for 1,380 yards, 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He’s steady and efficient but far from spectacular, with his most productive game of the season being a 235 yard effort against Iowa State. If Penn State’s defensive line can apply pressure without having to go overboard with its blitz packages, it will go a long ways towards helping to shut down the Hawkeyes offense.

Senior Riley McCarron is an undersized receiver who knows how to get open, leading the team with 30 receptions for 336 yards and three touchdowns. Senior George Kittle is a large target, but has struggled to get involved in the offense during the past few weeks.

IOWA DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE

On paper, Iowa’s defense looks solid and possesses the 16th-best scoring average in the nation allowing 18.9 points per game. However, they are about as inconsistent of a unit as you will find. On one hand, they’ve been suffocating by allowing just three points to Iowa State, seven to both Rutgers and Minnesota and 17 to Wisconsin. They’ve also been lit up for 38 by Northwestern and 35 against Purdue. In short, they’ve given offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead just enough film to find holes in their defense that he’ll hope to expose on Saturday night.

The Hawkeyes are allowing 153.8 yards per game on the ground. While not spectacular, this is a significant upgrade against Purdue, who seemed helpless at times in slowing down Saquon Barkley. The Maxwell Award semifinalist will have a more difficult time earning yardage than a week ago, but could still be in for a big day against the nation’s 54th-ranked run defense.

Iowa is slightly worse against the pass, checking in at 60th nationally by allowing 223.6 yards per contest. The Hawkeyes have one of the nation’s best defensive players in cornerback Desmond King. Quarterbacks have been wisely avoiding King’s side of the field this season, and he will work to take receiver Chris Godwin out of the game. If Trace McSorley chooses not to challenge King, he will look for other targets such as Saeed Blacknall, DaeSean Hamilton and Irvin Charles, among others. It’s unknown if sophomore receiver DeAndre Thompkins is ready to return from injury, but if so the emerging deep threat could be in for a big night.

Tight end Mike Gesicki was clearly hobbled in Penn State’s win against Purdue, and the Nittany Lions will hope that he is back to 100 percent to make full use of his exceptional athleticism. After a sophomore season plagued by drops, Gesicki has become an important component of Penn State’s varied offense and now stands as one of the Big Ten’s best tight ends.

Middle linebacker Josey Jewell is a tackle machine who shuts down the middle of the field. Iowa also has several defensive linemen (Jaleel Johnson, Matt Nelson and Anthony Nelson, among others) who can get in the backfield and make things very difficult for McSorley. The performance of the left side of Penn State’s offensive line will be one of the most important factors of the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Iowa has an outstanding kicker in freshman Keith Duncan, who is six of seven on field goals with a long of 41, and perfect on 28 extra point attempts as a Hawkeye. Senior Ron Coluzzi averages 40.8 yards per punt on the season with a long of 58 yards.

King handles return duties for Iowa and is a danger to break one any time he touches the ball. While he has yet to go the distance this season, he’s averaging 33 yards per kickoff return with a long of 77. Joey Julius will need to regularly put the ball through the end zone to avoid a momentum-shifting return by King, while punter Blake Gillkin will need plenty of hangtime to aid the punting unit against King’s explosiveness.

While John Reid has proved to be dangerous on punt returns, a fumble against Ohio State and a an awkward fair catch against Purdue may have opened the door for the sure-handed Gregg Garrity to become the regular punt returner moving forward for the Nittany Lions.

PREDICTION

Penn State-31, Iowa-23

For some reason, I’ve had more difficulty coming up with a prediction for this game than any other throughout the season. Maybe I’ve been burned too many times by unexpected losses to Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes. Maybe it’s the recent euphoria surrounding the program the last few weeks that has now culminated in an unexpected number-12 ranking, and the cosmic realization that the law of averages could soon even things out- like eating an otherworldly fantastic Italian meal, only to have it wreak havoc on your digestive system later in the evening. Maybe it’s the concern Iowa had an extra week to prepare, much like Penn State did before facing off against Ohio State, while the Buckeyes were playing in an emotional overtime victory against an extremely physical Wisconsin team.

Outside of my jitters, I do have to say I love Penn State’s chances on paper. While Iowa has a tough defense, they don’t do anything particularly outstanding which should be beneficial to Moorhead’s balanced attack. The night atmosphere should give the Nittany Lions a huge boost as always, and the Nittany Lions are a young and improving team with momentum on its side. While I expect the Nittany Lions to win, I could see it coming down to a big play or two down the stretch.

McSorley has himself a big day with a 260 yard passing effort and two touchdowns, going to Blacknall and Hamilton. Barkley picks up 140 yards on the ground and hits paydirt twice. On defense, Brandon Bell picks up 14 tackles and a sack, Garrett Sickels comes up big with three TFLs, while Kevin Givens gets a big-time sack late in the game and Malik Golden provides a clutch fourth quarter interception.