From 2000 thru 2011, Kirk Ferentz generally out-Paterno’d Paterno, winning 8 out of 10 contests - usually in excruciating fashion. Some of those were the most frustrating games conceivable. The average score was Iowa 20, PSU 17, Punting 537.
Painful? Certainly. But that pain taught respect, too. And it was out of respect for yesteryear that Film Room re-watched last year’s game, as well as the 2017 iteration of ¡El Assico! Could Ferentz ferentz us again?
Kill The Lights
The world’s wisest philosophers all agree that there are just two certainties in this world: 1) death - i.e., we’re all going to die; and 2) Iowa will play a base 4-3 defense on first and second downs. Doesn’t matter what you do, where you go, your amount of disposable income, your diet and exercise habits - you can’t escape death, nor will you catch Iowa in something other than its base 4-3 with two safeties on the hashes, 12 - 15 yards deep, on 1st-and-10.
That’s more true than ever this season, since Kirk Ferentz believes that his three senior linebackers form his single best defensive position group. Thus, Kirk’s even more loathe than usual to play nickle (and dime is right out).
Unfortunately for Iowa, that causes some scheme and match up issues with today’s spread ‘em out Penn State Nittany Lions. Because PSU spreads the field with 4 WRs (TE Mike Gesicki is a TE in name only), Iowa must dump - usually - its preferred 2-deep and 3-deep zone (since 2 (and 3) can’t cover 4 deep threats). This also means that - usually - a linebacker - since Iowa won’t swap out one LB for a 5th DB - must run with RB Saquon Barkley. Last year, as shown in the gif below, that duty fell to #41 OLB Bo Bower.
If Iowa gets PSU into 3rd and Passing (generally, that’s 5+ yards), then Ferentz will still keep his 3 linebackers on the field - but he’ll pull off a DT or two, to swap in the extra DB. Then he’ll muddle the front and - generally - rush 4, perhaps even 5, as shown in the gif below. But those LBs mostly play all game.
Now - you might look at those two gifs and say to yourself, “but that was last year, and Iowa was just kinda ‘off’ in that game. And maybe the Hawks didn’t put forth their best possible effort. I recall them just jogging thru some plays, (like the gif below which shows Iowa S #19 believing it was 2-hand touch).”
I considered that, friends. And as mentioned at the top of this post, out of respect to low scoring and often absurdly bizarre games of the past, I also watched the 2017 ¡El Assico! Here are a few gifs from that one.
Hit The Lights
For a decade, this PSU-Iowa game was a slugfest between identical twins, each of whom sought first to punt the ball, so that its defense might force an error. And if the punting stunk, then you’d take an intentional safety so you could more quickly return to playing your 4-3, cover 3 defense.
But because PSU changed, this game’s dynamic has changed, too. Granted - we might still punch holes in the drywall Saturday night out of frustration, but it won’t be due to 6-4, or Daniel (bleeping) Murray.
Modern, fancy pants 2017 PSU creates problems for Iowa’s (typcial) defense schematically. But even more than scheme, it’s the match ups with LBs and safeties. Ferentz’s back seven are - let’s say - not particularly fleet of foot. Iowa’s is not a defense built on speed. (Or disguise. Or pressure.) There are no modern “spacebackers” on the roster, who defend the alleys so frequently attacked by spread offenses like PSU’s. Consequently, despite playing 3 horrible (spread) teams, these 2017 Hawks are allowing 5.35 yards per play, and are currently tied for 104th nationally in tackles for loss. Those stats won’t improve until Iowa plays Michigan.
(Footnote, in fairness, and lest you bet the family farm on a PSU blowout - PSU’s defense - which is built on speed, and pressure, and spacebackers rather than linebackers - isn’t designed (or recruited) with defending Iowa’s offense in mind, either. And that’s one of the things that makes college football great - diversity of thought/scheme (as opposed to a more highly skilled, yet homogenized, NFL). Saturday night’s battle is not merely one of universities, but of ideas. Or if you prefer - calendars. Which decade is it? Tune in Saturday night to find out.)