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No.10 Penn State at No.17 Iowa: Game Preview

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Penn State faces its stiffest competition so far this season as they head to Iowa City for a prime time clash against the Hawkeyes.

NCAA Football: Penn State at Iowa Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports

The Nittany Lions go to battle against its first ranked opponent of the season in a hostile environment.

(#10) Penn State (5-0, 2-0) vs. (#17) Iowa (4-1, 1-1)

Kickoff: 7:30 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, IA

The Betting Line: Penn State -4.5

TV: ESPN - Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Todd Blackledge (analyst), Holly Rowe (sideline)

Weather: A cool and windy day, with temperatures dropping down into the upper-30s at night. Possibility for 20-30 mph wind gusts which could impact the game.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 50-21, 6th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 74-36, 9th Year

VS. IOWA: 3-0

Kirk Ferentz:

IOWA RECORD: 156-102, 21st Season

OVERALL RECORD: 168-123, 24th Season

VS. PENN STATE: 8-7

NOW THE FUN PART....

IOWA OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

Iowa’s offense is led by quarterback Nate Stanley, who is long on experience as a senior in his third season as starting quarterback. He seems to be on his way to his best season as a Hawkeye, but it should be noted that Stanley has always put up excellent numbers against the softer teams on the schedule, only to struggle against the top defenses in the Big Ten. Heading into last week, Stanley was connecting on 71 percent of his passes with eight touchdowns and no interceptions (against Miami(OH), Iowa State, Rutgers and Middle Tennessee). Against the Wolverines, he completed 54.8% of passes with no touchdowns and three interceptions.

In fairness to Stanley, he didn’t have much help from his offensive line last week and some key drops also helped limit the Hawkeyes to just three points. The Wolverines sacked Stanley eight times on Saturday after the Hawkeyes gave up just six sacks in the first four games. However, Stanley also had perhaps the worst game of his career against the Nittany Lions a season ago, completing only 18 of his 49 attempts with no touchdowns and two interceptions, including one on the goal line that proved extremely costly.

Stanley isn’t a scrambler, and will only run the ball on rare occasions. If Penn State can shut down the run as they have thus far, Stanley will be forced to stand in the pocket and hope to have enough time to find his receivers- a tall task against the Wild Dogs.

The Hawkeyes do not have one star running back like they have in the past, but rely on three solid options to carry the load. Senior Mekhi Sargent has received the bulk of the carries, and has two 91-yard rushing efforts on the season but only managed 12 on seven carries against the Wolverines. Toren Young has an impressive 7.1 yards per carry average, and has led the way the last two weeks with a 11-carry, 131 yard effort against Middle Tennessee and 40 yards on eight attempts against Michigan on a day where the Iowa offense just couldn’t get much going. Freshman Tyler Goodson will also join the fun as part of the rotation. Goodson is the most prolific receiver of the group, with 14 catches for 83 yards this season.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette has developed into the team’s most reliable receiver, catching four passes each game with the exception of Iowa State, when he had three receptions. He had three touchdowns in the first two weeks, but has not been able to find the end zone since. Junior Brandon Smith has shown flashes, with 17 catches and three touchdowns, while freshman Nico Ragini has gradually become more productive throughout the season and could be in store for a breakout game on Saturday. Shockingly enough, the Hawkeyes do not have a major threat at tight end this year, with junior Shaun Beyer having just four catches so far, with three games where he did not record a reception.

The game plan for Penn State will be familiar- shut down the run, and make Stanley throw the ball over and over and over — just like last year when he had 49 pass attempts. Fortunately, this match-up appears to play right into the Nittany Lions strengths.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. IOWA DEFENSE

Among the cornerstones of the Iowa program is a stout defense, and that high standard is present again this year allowing just 8.8 yards per game and 255 yards. While there is no doubt that Iowa will come in with an excellent game plan to try to shut down the Nittany Lions offense, it will also likely be by far the biggest test so far this season.

A.J. Epenesa is the big name on everyone’s radar, following a tradition of outstanding defensive linemen coming out of Iowa City (anyone else still having nightmares about Adrian Clayborn??). Epenesa is similar to Yetur Gross-Matos- large, long and quite speedy for his size. He only has two sacks on the season, but could come up huge and cause fits for the Nittany Lions offense on Saturday. He does have five quarterback hurries on the season, so he is impacting the game more than his sack total would suggest.

As stingy as Iowa’s defense has been, they only have seven sacks on the season— three fewer than Penn State had against Purdue a week ago. They also have a surprisingly low amount of TFLs at 15 after five games, with sophomore defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon leading the way with 2.5. While Iowa has succeeded in limiting production, they are not as disruptive as we’ve seen in the past.

Iowa has been especially well defending the run, allowing 87.6 yards per game and 3.6 yards per carry. If they do a good job of shutting down the #LawnBoyz, Sean Clifford will need to be prepared to carry the load in a hostile environment. This could also mean more of running back Noah Cain, who has proven capable of picking up tough yards and moving the chains. Cain is coming off a big performance against the Boilermakers, where he gained 105 yards on 12 carries.

Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia is the standout of the secondary. Not only does he have two interceptions and three pass breakups, but has an excellent nose for the ball and is currently fifth on the team in tackles. Senior linebacker Kristian Welch is far from flashy, but continually stops plays before they can get anywhere. He currently leads the team in tackles by a wide margin, with 39 on the year.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Iowa has a standout kicker in Keith Duncan, who is 11 of 12 on the season with a long of 49 yards. Duncan could become a major factor in a tight contest, which seems to be the norm for night games in Kinnick. Senior punter Michael Sleep-Dalton is off a hot start with a 43 yard average, with regular 50-plus yard punts when the Hawkeyes are backed up.

Nico Ragini has the quickness to be an effective punt returner, averaging almost 11 yards per return. Ihmir Smith-Marsette handles kickoff returns and boasts a 22-yard average per return. The Hawkeyes do not have any return touchdowns this season.

Penn State’s special teams have undergone a vast improvement, but will need to bounce back from a poor performance against Purdue. Blake Gillikin wasn’t his usual self with some short kicks and one flat-out shank, Jake Pinegar missed his first field goal of the year (a 35-yard attempt), and KJ Hamler ended up going backwards on multiple punt returns. The special teams should play an absolutely vital role if this turns out to be one of those games where the Hawkeyes find ways to stay within striking distance and force Penn State to play a full four quarters of quality football.

PREDICTION

Penn State-26, Iowa-18

I try my best to put aside any biases, history, and everything else aside when making these predictions and focus solely on how these teams will match-up on the field. However, my brain just won’t allow that to happen with a night game in Kinnick on the horizon.

Before you get on my case about predicting 18 points for Iowa, let me say this- they played uncharacteristic last week with several dropped passes and untimely penalties that proved costly. While Michigan played an outstanding game on defense, the Hawkeyes measly three points on the afternoon was in large part due to them constantly shooting themselves in the foot. Secondly, something weird is going to happen in this game (again, Kinnick at night). They’ll get a safety and then return the free kick for a touchdown, or they’ll return a fumble for a touchdown after everyone though the play was dead, they’ll get a pick-six on a ball that bounces off someone’s hands, or they’ll score after mistakenly given an extra down. Something will happen that keeps Iowa in this game.

So while I think Penn State will outmatch the Hawkeyes, limiting their points and out-dueling the Hawkeyes offense, Iowa will do what they always seem to do in these contests- keep it tight, find ways to make a big play or two, and put themselves in a situation to come away with a victory in the closing moments. The Nittany Lions will escape with the ‘W’, but it will be a nerve-wracking three hours for fans in blue and white.

I’m not expecting an offensive explosion, but the Nittany Lions put together some nice drives and Pat Freiermuth and Jahan Dotson each contribute touchdowns, with Noah Cain leading the way with 60 yards rushing and a score. The defense will again steal the show, getting in Stanley’s face and keeping the Hawkeyes ground game in check. Shaka Toney continues his hot streak with two sacks, Cam Brown leads the way with nine tackles, and John Reid comes away with a clutch fourth quarter interception to propel the Nittany Lions to victory.