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Interview with Frenemies: Iowa Hawkeyes Edition

We get a little insight on the Iowa Hawkeyes heading into this weekends matchup.

NCAA Football: Iowa at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s once again that time of the week. The time we sit down with our frenemies with a SB Nation sister site and learn more about Penn State’s upcoming opponent. This week, that opponent is of course the Iowa Hawkeyes. We were able to catch up with Black Heart Gold Pant’s Jonah Parker and talk more about the Hawkeyes entering this weekend...

Q: This Iowa offense has seemed like two completely different offenses through the first four games. What has been the difference between their performances in games one and two and their performances I’ve the last two weeks?

JP: The Iowa offense continues to be the cause of much consternation among Hawkeye fans. The last two weeks have been much better because offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has stuck with the run game.

We saw that largely work in week one when Iowa ran for nearly 200 yards against Purdue, but points didn’t get on the board because Iowa committed the third most penalties of the 22 years Kirk Ferentz has been here and we saw them fumble the ball away twice on the Purdue 10 yard line.

For whatever reason, the younger Ferentz decided to entirely scrap that game plan and fix what didn’t appear broken heading into the week two matchup with Northwestern. Iowa sent their sophomore QB in second career start out to attempt passes on 53 plays. Iowa. By contrast, the Hawkeyes ran the ball just 23 times. The result was predictably bad.

Heading into week 5, the question for many Iowa fans is whether Brian Ferentz will again try to tinker with an offense that’s put up 84 points the last two weeks.

Q:Spencer Petras appears to be a capable quarterback but not a quarterback that can take a game over at any moment (at least so far). What have been his strengths and weaknesses so far and what should Penn State fans expect out of him this weekend?

JP: While Brian Ferentz is the target of most Iowa fan frustrations, Spencer Petras has been downright puzzling. He came to Iowa highly regarded with a sterling prep resume (I’ll apologize now for the 10 minutes they’ll spend on the broadcast Saturday comparing him to Jared Goff, whose high school records he demolished). After 2+ years learning under Nate Stanley, Petras was billed all offseason as an upgrade who had a bigger arm with more touch. That’s not what we’ve seen through four games.

Instead, Petras has shown almost no touch, whether it be on deep throws, screens or anything in between. He’s completing more than 70% of his passes within 5 yards but is under 40% when you go beyond that, largely because he hasn’t found a way to air under the deep ball without sailing well beyond even Ihmir Smith-Marsette, Iowa’s fastest playmaker.

If Ferentz can get him into a rhythm with short throws on script where he can make one read and fire, Petras is good enough for the Iowa offense to succeed. If this turns into a tight one where Iowa needs a game-winning drive with big throws from the sophomore, there isn’t a lot of confidence among fans that he can make that happen.

Q: The Hawkeyes offense has been quite successful this year in running the ball, what has been the keys to success there for the Hawkeyes and how can the Nittany Lions try to slow it down?

JP: To Brian Ferentz‘a credit, he’s done a nice job of mixing up play calling enough that things aren’t as predictable as your stereotypical Iowa offense. This team has been throwing much more on first down and mixing formations for the run and play-action passing game.

Perhaps most importantly, however, has been the usage of motion to create hesitation in defenders. Iowa has been most successful when they utilize Smith-Marsette, Tyrone Tracy or Charlie Jones in motion across the formation to freeze the edge defender and linebacker long enough to create a crease in the zone blocking scheme. Tyler Goodson has shown excellent vision and an ability to explode through those creases while Mekhi Sargent is a more methodical runner who uses his patience to really set up blockers and power through holes

Penn State has the athletes to mitigate the success Iowa has using motion and if they stay disciplined, they can get Iowa behind the chains. That has always been a problem for Iowa and if we see a lack of success on first down, the whole world knows second down will bring a run regardless of how stacked the box is. That could set up some very problematic third down situations.

As noted, QB Spencer Petras has yet to show the ability to really create big plays so I would expect the Nittany Lions to sell out against the run and put the pressure on Petras to beat them through the air.

Q: The Iowa defense once again appears to be among the best in the Big Ten, when they have gotten beat this year, how have opposing offenses done it? What would you say is the defenses biggest strength? Biggest weakness?

JP: As wild as it sounds, the defense was the biggest concern entering this season. Petras was expected to be good with a solid offensive line and the most talented group of skill players Iowa has had in some time. The defense had holes at every position after graduations and the departure of AJ Epenesa and Geno Stone for the NFL.

Instead, the defense has shown once again that Phil Parker is the master. After losing one of the best edge rushers Iowa’s has in AJ Epenesa, the defensive line has been much better than expected at generating pressure driven in large part by DT Daviyon Nixon. Nixon is a big body who can bulldoze in the middle, but is athletic and quick enough to come off the edge in certain passing situations and has even been dropped into coverage on select zone blitzes this season.

At linebacker, Iowa lost starters Kristian Welch and Djimon Colbert to graduation and an opt out respectively. When the also lost the heir apparent at MLB in Dillon Doyle, Hawkeye fans fully expected a debacle at the position. But Seth Benson has been quite good while Nick Niemann, the only returning starter, has been a stalwart.

That third linebacker spot has largely been filled by safety Dane Belton as Parker returns to using the “cash” position (which is essentially a third safety rather than an extra corner in nickel coverage) except in situations where the offense has a fullback or two tight ends on the field. Belton has looked great for most of the season while the back end has held up well with him playing closer to the line of scrimmage.

All that is to say, the biggest strength of this defense is Phil Parker and his ability to scheme to his personnel. Nobody jumps off the screen for this Iowa defense with the exception of Nixon and candidly, the secondary is a step down from recent years. But they continue to create turnovers and keep everything in front of them in the classic bend, don’t break concept.

Q: What is your prediction for this weekend’s game, it’s been series that has been dominated by one team or the other over the last 20 years, do the Hawkeyes finally get back into the win column against Penn State this weekend?

This one is genuinely difficult to predict. My heart wants to believe what we saw from the Hawkeyes the last two games is evidence this team has turned the corner and is ready to make a run. But my brain tells me this was just a pair of below average opponents who Iowa was able to run all over.

The Hawkeyes have struggled against Penn State the last decade and I expect that to continue this week. Penn State has enough athletes to create problems for the Iowa offense while the Nittany Lion offense seems capable of scoring against a defense that has shown some lapses in the back end. If Penn State can avoid turning the ball over, which seems more likely if it’s Will Levis at QB instead of Sean Clifford, I expect them to get a win in a close one.

Penn State 17, Iowa 15 (because we know things will get weird, right?)