This week, we caught up with our friendenemy JP in Iowa City from Black Heart Gold Pants to talk about Saturday afternoon’s top-5 showdown. We talked about Iowa’s insane defensive play, the offense which is, puzzling at times, and what could end up deciding the game.
1) This Iowa defense is absolutely tremendous no doubt about that but in the eyes of those who watch this Iowa offense weekly? How would you best describe the offense and how they’ve played this season?
The offense has been the focus of much discussion among the Hawkeye faithful and for good reason. Iowa doesn’t have loads of talent at the skill positions that will blow opponents away and the offensive scheme is what it always has been (zone blocking with a near 50/50 split between run and pass with the run used to set up play action). They’re near the bottom of the conference in virtually every meaningful category.
But they’re doing exactly what needs done to win a bunch of games under Kirk Ferentz. They aren’t turning it over (outside a pair of fumbles in week one, the Hawkeyes have had just two turnovers in the last four games) and frankly with this defense and Tory Taylor pinning opponents deep, that’s all Iowa needs.
Beyond that, the Hawkeyes have been tremendous at converting turnovers into points. The Iowa defense has created 14 turnovers through five games and every single one of them has resulted in points - 82 in total or more than 16 points per game.
2) How has Spencer Petras progressed from last season and would you say there’s confidence in Petras to make potentially important passes late in Saturday’s game?
Petras has been a lightning rod for Iowa fans and that seemed to come to a head early in this season. But the last two weeks have shown much more of what Hawkeye fans crave - shots down field.
The California native came to campus boasting a big arm and we really didn’t see that much early in the season. In the first three weeks, Iowa threw just seven passes 20 or more yards downfield. They’ve thrown 13 such passes the last two weeks and Petras has shown more touch and accuracy downfield than Iowa’s had since 2015.
That said, his footwork continues to be an issue. He notoriously gets happy feet when the pocket is not collapsing and tends to hang around too long when it is. He’s not a guy who can hurt you with his legs and has a tendency to float rather than scramble and that has led to a lot of missed throws.
The big question mark for Iowa fans is when those bad throws become turnovers as Petras has thrown just one interception (and it was a brutal one on a screen play that shouldn’t have been called near the goal line against Colorado State) on the season. Put Hawkeye fans firmly in the “worried” camp if Spencer Petras is asked to go out and win the game against a top-5 opponent.
3) Outside of Goodson, who are some of the weapons Penn State’s defense will need to keep an eye on?
Tyler Goodson is obviously the straw that stirs the drink for the Hawkeyes and he is Iowa’s most explosive weapon. Beyond him, in a shock to absolutely nobody, Brian Ferentz likes to utilize his tight ends. Sam LaPorta is the leader in receptions (with 25% of Petras’ completed passes), yards and touchdowns. He’s a middle-class version of TJ Hockenson at this stage.
On the outside, Charlie Jones has emerged as perhaps the most reliable target with a full route tree (it’s worth noting he’s also one of the best punt returners in the conference) while Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy are the most targeted wide receivers on the year (behind LaPorta and Goodson).
The last two weeks as Iowa has looked to expand the vertical passing attack, we’ve finally seen the emergence of a pair of freshmen WRs who may play a role in this one. Keagan Johnson was a 4-star prospect who boasts the most speed of any Iowa WR and came away with two catches for 92 yards and a TD against CSU. He was used largely as a decoy last week but is a name to monitor if Iowa decides to take a shot. The other one to note is Arland Bruce, who is similar to Tracy in that he played some RB is a prep and has proven valuable as a target closer to the line of scrimmage who can make people miss.
4) This Iowa defense is arguably the second best defense in the country this season (Georgia being No.1), what have the Hawkeyes been doing that has kept opposing offenses so frustrated?
Like the offense, the Iowa defense sort of is what it has always been. Phil Parker has built a system in Iowa City that he can replicate with minor tweaks to take advantage of personnel from year to year. This year, he has all four starters back in the back end, as well as the starting “cash” (somewhere between a LB and a CB that plays against 11 or 10 personnel from opposing offenses), and perhaps the best trio of linebackers Iowa has had in a decade.
There were questions about the front four coming into the year after losing Daviyon Nixon, Chauncey Golston and Jack Heflin to the NFL, but this front has proven to be very stout. That’s allowed Parker to keep the back four in coverage and the linebackers to fill running lanes or drop in coverage with minimal concerns up front.
Iowa is going to stick largely with zone coverage and two high safeties to go with that four man front. But Parker has shown some willingness to mix in man in certain situations and when opposing QBs get too comfortable finding the holes in the zone he has proven uncanny at timing up pressures.
But perhaps the thing that has made this group so effective is just how fundamentally sound they are. On nearly every play, 11 guys are in the spot they’re supposed to be, playing their assignment the way they’re supposed to and when opponents make a mistake they take advantage virtually every time.
With the way the offense is set up to kill clock and play field position, and the accuracy of punter Tory Taylor that can pin opponents deep in their own territory, this defense and sit back and wait for those mistakes to come from opponents. Occasionally they don’t and occasionally we’ve seen someone out of position on a play or two, but by and large the result has been the suffocating boa constrictor approach to football the Kirk Ferentz dreams of.
5) Who are some potential x-factors in this game for Penn State fans to know about on either side of the ball?
In any Iowa game, things ultimately come down to turnovers, field position and who can run the ball. So to me, Iowa’s punter Tory Taylor will play a major role in this one. He’s been tremendous so far this season, though he has had one or two misfires that would prove costly against an opponent like Penn State.
I’ve also already mentioned Charlie Jones. He’s phenomenal with the ball in his hands in the return game and consistently will turn a fair catch type punt into 6-7 yards of field position and he’s nearly broken a couple kick returns through five games.
The only other names I would call out on the offensive side of the ball are Mason Richman and Kyler Schott. Richman is a redshirt freshman starting at left tackle and while he has really shined so far this season, the prospect of starting a freshman at LT in the biggest home game since 1985 is reason for some pause. Schott is at the other end of the spectrum as a redshirt senior who missed time to start the season due to a foot injury and is just now appearing fully healthy. The Iowa run game just looks better with him next to Tyler Linderbaum in the middle and if Iowa can get something going with Goodson, that really opens up the offense.
Lastly, I’ll just call out Zach VanValkenburg and Jestin Jacobs on the defense. ZVV is Iowa’s best pass rusher. The former D2 player turned All-Big Ten defensive end is great in all facets of the game, but really pulls a lot of attention from opposing offensive lines that has opened things up for guys like Lukas Van Ness (four sacks) and Joe Evans (three sacks). Jacobs is the third linebacker who will play against 21 or 12 personnel and is likely to draw coverage matchups against Penn State’s tight ends. He’s the most physically gifted backer I can remember in an Iowa uniform and has endeared himself to Iowa fans forever after causing the fumble by Iowa State’s Breece Hall in week two that really broke things open.
6) How do you see this game playing out on Saturday?
As much as Iowa fans want to see the Hawkeyes open things up offensively and win in a blowout like they did a week ago, I just don’t see that as a possibility. This game has rock fight written all over it.
I suspect Clifford finds Dotson early and often in this one, likely getting up on Iowa early, before Parker dials up some pressure and the defense clamps down for the long haul. On the other side of the ball, I see the Hawkeyes struggling to get much going early as PSU focuses on taking away the run. But Iowa finds a way to convert solid field position to bring things tight in the second half and this one comes down to Spencer Petras needing to get a score late in the game for a win.
Ultimately, his second interception of the season comes in the worst possible time and the Hawkeyes lose 20-17.
Before we leave you, we would like to thank JP for his time this week. You can check him out on Twitter @JPinIC_BHGP and of course his work on blackheartsgoldpants.com