Saturday will mark the ninth time that Penn State has played Iowa since the Big Ten started divisional play back in 2011. This is notable, of course, since the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes are not in the same division. Familiarity breeds contempt, but hold the hate for one moment and read what Jonah Parker of our sister site Black Heart Gold Pants had to say about tomorrow’s matchup.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s contract has been a huge story. Statistically, it doesn’t seem to have made a huge difference. But having watched through three games, have you seen any changes in the offense or differences in how he’s called games?
Through three games, I don’t think there has been a major change in how Brian has called games. He has proven at least serviceable at scripting the first series or two and pretty miserable at making in-game adjustments and I don’t think we’ve seen any indication through non-conference play that those characteristics will change.
However, we have seen an improvement in the offense from an eye test perspective. Nobody is going to suggest Iowa is lighting the world on fire and the level of competition in the first three weeks has not been high. That said, we are seeing passes down the field at nearly double the rate we did a season ago with a QB who has shown an ability to feel pressure in the pocket and adjust enough to get those throws off and enough healthy WRs on the field to at least have long-developing routes included in the game plan.
Further, after a rough start, Iowa found some success in the running game last week that has really been driven by more usage of gap concepts (Iowa has long been a zone team under Ferentz) and backs who are better utilized as downhill runners.
Staying with the offense, how do you anticipate the Hawkeyes trying to attack Manny Diaz’s defense and what players should Penn State fans be aware of on Saturday night?
I don’t think it’s any big secret that the recipe Kirk Ferentz has used for 20+ years in games such as this involves shortening the game, limiting possessions and out-executing opponents with more talent. On paper, Penn State is going to have better athletes than Iowa 99% of the time so Ferentz has long believed the only way to success when you are out-manned is to limit the amount of time that talent gap can be on display
So I expect a healthy dose of the running game Saturday night. Iowa is really playing from behind here with starting TE Luke Lachey likely out for the year and both starting RB Kaleb Johnson and backup Jaziun Patterson expected to be out this week with ankle injuries. But the Hawkeyes found depth at the position a week ago as Leshon Williams ran for 145 yards on 12 carries and freshman Kamari Moulton found paydirt twice.
Look for Iowa to bleed clock as much as possible, dink and dunk a bit underneath with Michigan transfer TE Erick All and occasionally take a shot off play-action to the likes of Seth Anderson or Diante Vines. However, QB Cade McNamara is still dealing with a quad injury and is clearly not himself, so those play-action looks are likely to be out of shotgun, rather than Iowa’s traditional under-center bootlegs and rollouts.
First-time starting quarterback Drew Allar finally faced some adversity last weekend at Illinois, though he still did not commit a turnover. What do you expect from Phil Parker’s defense on Saturday night to change that?
Phil Parker’s defense is going to be the same defense you’ve seen for two decades in Iowa City. They’re going to sit in their base defense and beg Allar to get impatient and make a mistake.
CB Cooper DeJean is an All-American and I expect Allar to avoid his side of the field basically the entire night. I think he’s been thrown at maybe once all year and it was nearly a pick-6. Instead, I suspect we see Allar go at Jermari Harris, who was suspended the first two games of the season and looked like he had plenty of rust to shake off in his first start back a week ago. If PSU gets a deep shot, it will be on Harris’ side. We saw that a week ago on Western Michigan’s lone TD as Harris passed off a WR to a safety who was elsewhere in coverage.
Up front, Iowa likes to create pressure by using stunts and twists out of their down linemen rather than really dialing anything up on blitzes. When Phil goes that route, they tend to be at crucial moments (for example on Iowa State’s final drive when they needed a TD to keep the game alive) and without any early indication.
The Hawkeyes have been pretty solid against the run, but Iowa is not loaded with athleticism outside of DeJean and safety Xavier Nwankpa. I would expect them to play the game pretty much straight up, look to stop the run and wait for Allar to make a mistake taking a shot.
Penn State has had some issues on special teams, missing two field goals in Week 1 and having a punt partially blocked on Saturday afternoon. I know Tory Taylor is a dominant punter in his now 17th year in Iowa City. What about the rest of the special teams units? What impact could they have?
Ha! Iowa has really latched on to their Aussie punters of late (to the point of basically pushing away the nation’s top punter from within the state’s borders in 2023 - he’s headed to Georgia now instead) and Tory is another great one. Special teams is an area Iowa has really excelled in the last several years under ST Coordinator LeVar Woods. It sort of has to be when your offense is as bad as Iowa’s has been in that time.
With that, kicker Drew Stevens has been tremendous. He finally missed a 41-yarder last week, but has been perfect on extra points through his 16 game-career and has not missed a FG inside of 40 while going 2/2 beyond 50 yards. He has range out to around 55 yards and given the concerns on offense, I would expect to hear his name a few times Saturday night.
On the other side of things, Iowa blocked a punt of their own for a safety last week and has been close on a number of them this year. They don’t do anything special, but have seemed to follow a model that should be familiar to PSU fans (see: Clayborn, Adrian - 2009). Defensive tackle Anterio Thompson, who is Daviyon Nixon-lite at 6’3” and 293 pounds in his sophomore season (sorry for any additional PTSD - we don’t get many opportunities to take anything resembling a victory lap as Iowa fans), has been able to generate pressure by simply bulldozing his way down central right through the wall/personal protector(s).
In the return game, Cooper DeJean has been the best we’ve seen at punt return since Charlie Jones decided he wanted to catch more than punts. On kick return, things have been evolving with the injury to Kaleb Johnson, but former walk-on Kaden Wetjen is the fastest player on the team and is averaging 26 yards per return on the year. I suspect we don’t see many opportunities for a return out of either team Saturday.
This is the second time Iowa will have played in the Whiteout - having dominated the second half back in 2009. What are keys you’ll be keeping in mind on Saturday night and any predictions?
As I said above, I expect Iowa to look to 2009 as the model for having a shot in this one. Penn State is going to out-talent Iowa 99 times out of 100. There are maybe 2-3 spots on the field where that isn’t true. So Iowa is going to look to muddy this thing up and get Penn State into a rock fight, where talent and athleticism are less important.
If Iowa can avoid turning the ball over (3 interceptions on the year and 3 fumbles, though none lost) and keep Cade McNamara relatively clean (6 sacks given up), they will be able to hang around. The defense is not as good as a year ago, but they’re good enough and fundamentally sound enough to make Penn State eat clock themselves as they try to score points. If the Lions get anxious or impatient, there is enough talent on the defense to capitalize and that’s Phil Parker’s entire philosophy.
I expect the Hawkeyes to have some success on that side of things, but with the offense needing to run the ball while being down their top two backs and without an excellent blocker in Lachey, I think they lack the firepower to stay on the field. Eventually, the defense will wear out and give up a play they shouldn’t. Once behind, the Hawkeyes just aren’t built for success and if we get to that point before the 4th quarter, things could get ugly as they try to claw back and inevitably turn the ball over themselves.
I’m a homer and an optimist, but I’m not disconnected from reality (well, not that disconnected) - Penn State 20, Iowa 13.
We want to thank Jonah for all of the information and analysis of the Hawkeyes. Please go check out Black Heart Gold Pants for plenty of coverage of this matchup.