Ahead of Penn State’s long-anticipated matchup with Iowa, we caught up with Jonah Parker of Black Heart Gold Pants to get some intel behind enemy lines.
1) Iowa’s through their first five games. What are three things that you know about the Hawkeyes from those first five games?
The biggest thing we know about Iowa at this point is we really don’t know anything about the offense. In five games, we’ve seen two entirely different teams show up. Against the teams you’d expect Iowa to beat (Miami OH, Rutgers and Middle Tennessee), they’ve looked like an Iowa fan’s dream. They were able to assert their dominance in the run game while mixing in plenty of passing work and even a glimpse of creativity.
In the Hawkeyes’ two games against teams with a defensive pulse, they’ve looked totally different. Iowa State was a bit of a different animal with the weather and field conditions, but the offense totally shots themselves in the foot all game long at Michigan. Hawkeye fans are ready to write the offense off, but I don’t think we really have a clue what it will look like by season’s end.
The second thing we know is the defense is pretty good. It’s not spectacular and it’s been banged up, but it looks a lot like a classic Iowa defense that’s willing to let teams move the ball but stiffens up in the red zone. That’s been a recipe for success for 20 years so you won’t find many Iowa fans complaining there.
And finally, we know that this Iowa team may be the most talented at the skill positions we’ve seen in a decade, but that doesn’t mean they can overcome mistakes. This team has at least two and possibly three first rounders in A.J. Epenesa, Tristan Wirfs and Alaric Jackson. Those guys are all in the trenches, but the collection of Brandon Smith, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Nico a Ragaini, Tyrone Tracy and Michigan transfer Oliver Martin are the deepest WR group I can remember at Iowa. The Hawkeyes have three RBs they feel comfortable with and a fourth who started last season as the starter. And the secondary has a star in Geno Stone.
But none of that was enough to overcome the mistakes a week ago. If this team plays clean, Iowa football they will win 9 or 10 games this year. If they turn the ball over, miss assignments and get penalties, they’re capable of losing almost every game left on the schedule.
2) Nate Stanley is considered one of the Big Ten’s best quarterbacks but seems to struggle against some of Iowa’s better opponents. What’s the key for opposing defenses when it comes to forcing the Hawkeyes quarterback to make mistakes?
The key this season has been getting pressure on him. Before last week at Michigan, Stanley hadn’t turned the ball over. Through the first four games, Iowa gave up only 8 sacks.
Then the wheels fell off as the OL gave up 8 sacks in a single game and Stanley threw three interceptions. I would expect Penn State to bring pressure early and often to test both Stanley and the OL.
3) Last time, Penn State came to Iowa City, Akrum Wadley almost single-handedly won Iowa the game late in the fourth quarter. Who are some offensive players that Penn State will need to watch out for that can make impact plays like Wadley?
Unfortunately for Iowa, there’s nobody on the roster as dynamic as Wadley was. However, Ihmir Smith-Marsette is a burner on the outside who can make plays in the passing game, but was also a preseason All-American kick returner after being the Big Ten Returner of the Year a season ago.
Another name to watch is Tyler Goodson. The freshman RB from Georgia is the closest thing this team has to Wadley. He doesn’t have the same wiggle as Akrum, but his top end speed is better. He’s still earning trust as a young guy, but his touches seem to go up each week.
4) Iowa’s defense seems as dominant as ever which could create a classic Penn State-Iowa score on Saturday, what are the strengths of this Iowa defense?
The strength has definitely been up front. A.J. Epenesa is the name everyone knows and he’s a star, but the whole defensive line is stout. Hawkeye fans are still waiting for Chauncey Golston to take advantage of the attention Epenesa gets, but Daviyon Nixon and Cedric Lattimore have been very good in the middle of the line.
5) Likewise, what has been the weaknesses of this Iowa defense? Do you see Penn State being able to expose any of these weaknesses?
The biggest issue facing the defense thus far has been injuries in the secondary. Iowa has been without starting corner Matt Hankins for several weeks. Similarly, starting safety Kaevon Merriweather has been sidelined but may have now lost his job to Jack Koerner.
The real problem, however, is the third and fourth corners have also been injured. Already without Hankins, Phil Parker has had to abandon his plan to utilize more 4-2-5 this season with Riley Moss and Julius Brents both out for extended time. That’s slid D.J. Johnson into a starting role. He’s taken his lumps here and there early, but the battle scars seem to be helping him lately.
6) A.J Epenesa stat wise hasn’t seemed to really breakout yet this season. What’s up with him through the first five games?
Epenesa’s stat line has been disappointing if you only look at that, but he’s had a major impact in every game. Offensive coordinators have spent absurd amounts of time and energy to stop him. Outside of Michigan, where he did come away with a sack, Epenesa has faced 2 and often 3 blockers on nearly every snap this season.
Most teams have used a tight end to chip along with the tackle and then brought a RB to his side as a fail safe. Parker has finally gotten a bit more creative and started stunting him more and even tried sliding him into DT to get better matchups. That will certainly be something to watch Saturday.
7) Outside of Epenesa, who are some names Penn State fans should know defensively for the Hawkeyes? We assume Pennsylvania native Geno Stone is a name to know?
Stone is definitely one to know. He’s the classic Phil Parker special. 2-star kid with no offers except the academies and some FCS schools, but he was a high school QB and a really smart kid. Shows up, works his butt off and learns quickly and next thing you know he’s potentially leaving early for the NFL Draft.
Outside Stone, I’ve already mentioned Epenesa, Lattimore and Nixon up front. Michael Ojemudia is Iowa’s most experienced and healthy corner. The linebackers have quietly been very good. It will be interesting to see if Iowa tries to do what has historically done with guys like Djimon Colbert, Kristian Welch and Ben Niemann and puts them in coverage against PSU’s slot receivers and RBs or if we finally see that 4-2-5 look come to life like it did a season ago.
8) What do you think needs to go right for Iowa to win on Saturday?
Iowa is going to need a lot to go right to come away with a win Saturday night. First and foremost, the offense that showed up a week ago needs to get lost on the way to the stadium. I think that’s actually a safe bet. Kirk Ferentz teams are a lot of things, but mistake-probe isn’t one of them. I don’t expect the Hawkeyes to play mistake-free, but I certainly don’t expect them to give up 8 sacks or commit 8 penalties or turn the ball over 4 times on Saturday. If they do even one of those they lose.
From there, Nate Stanley has to connect on a couple of deep balls. That’s long been a criticism but he has been somewhat better this year. Actually going deep for chunk plays creates the opportunity for Iowa to get back to running the ball without a stacked box. That’s critical for their success. The Hawkeyes are 40-4 since 2015 when they rush for more than 100 yards. They’re 1-13 when they fail to do so (credit Scott Dochterman of The Athletic for that gem of a star).
And finally, the defense has to do what it always has to do: hold up in the red zone and force mistakes. If Iowa wins the turnover battle, they have a chance to win the game.
9) What’s your score prediction and who’s your MVP of the game for the Hawkeyes?
A lot of Iowa fans lost all faith in this team after last week. It’s understandable given how putrid the offense looked. But I remain optimistic we won’t see this team make the absurd number of mental mistakes it did last week. It’s just not how the program has been built.
So, while I’m surely in the vast minority here, I’m going to be a complete homer and say the Hawkeyes come out with some fire and attention to detail to tap into the magic of a night game in Kinnick. I think the defense comes up with a pair of turnovers and the offense does just enough to get the upset.
Iowa 17, PSU 13
(Yes, I know I’m wrong.)