Penn State may have cruised through the non-conference schedule with a 3-0 record, but there are still plenty of questions surrounding this team and its ability to capture a second straight Big Ten championship. The final scores all looked convincing, but the James Franklin’s Nittany Lions weren’t challenged very much by a Pittsburgh team that is still trying to figure out its quarterback situation and two mid-major squads.
That ought to change this weekend as Penn State goes on the road for the first time in the 2017 Big Ten opener at Iowa. The Hawkeyes are also undefeated and are sporting a new-look offense with a fresh starting quarterback and a leading receiver that wasn’t on the team last year. The Lions have had recent success against Iowa with wins in the last three meetings dating back to 2011, but Penn State and Iowa fans alike won’t soon forget the upsets that Kirk Ferentz teams pulled in 2008 and 2009 to crush the Lions’ national title hopes.
Penn State is coming into this matchup with the same kind of hype, and a convincing victory would go a long way towards fulfilling this team’s potential. Meanwhile, the Hawkeyes could use a victory here to propel themselves to a division title in the wide open Big Ten West. To break down this most worthy adversary, we’re talking to Creighton from SB Nation’s Big Ten blog, Off Tackle Empire as well as GospelOfMax from Iowa blog Black Heart Gold Pants. Thanks to Creighton and GospelOfMax for joining us this week!
Black Shoe Diaries: New starting quarterback Nathan Stanley has looked pretty good so far with 10 touchdown passes, nearly eight yards per attempt, and just one interception. Last year, C.J. Beathard threw 17 touchdown passes all season long. Big Ten play will certainly provide a tougher challenge than what Stanley has seen so far, but do you see the sophomore making Iowa's offense a bigger vertical threat than it was last year?
Off Tackle Empire: Iowa is definitely going to stretch the field more this season, but it's not all due to Stanley. Beathard was an NFL-caliber quarterback with a big arm, but he spent his entire career playing in a miserable Greg Davis offense that relied on a horizontal passing game and all but broadcast exactly where the ball was going based on the personnel on the field.
Davis' successor, Brian Ferentz, has moved Iowa back to more of a traditional pro-style offense heavy on running, play-action passing and actually throwing the ball past the first down marker. Stanley has a lot going for him that makes him a very good fit in this system. First, his arm is strong enough to throw the ball deep without letting it hang in the air too long. Second, he has great field vision and rarely misses an open receiver or throws a dangerous pass, and his only interception this year came on a tipped ball against Wyoming.
If Stanley has one weakness, it's his lack of touch on deep balls. There have been at least four or five different occasions where he overthrew a wide open receiver streaking down the sideline for what would have been a touchdown. If he can ever figure out how to start connecting on those passes he's going to be a terrific quarterback.
Black Heart Gold Pants: I definitely think that Iowa's offense is more of a vertical threat than it was last year, and in part I would attribute that to Stanley, but I think the biggest factor in all of this is first-year offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Ferentz the Younger has shown that he's much more willing than his predecessor to attack teams through the air, and while Iowa's true identity is still that of a run-first football team, he's kept teams honest enough that it's not quite as easy to stack the box against the Hawks. Last year, Iowa stubbornly tried to run the ball repeatedly at eight- or nine-man boxes. This year, it appears as though they'll still do that, sure, but they'll try to make teams pay if they're constantly sitting on the run.
Back to the players, though. I think the talent around Stanley is the biggest factor in Iowa being more of a threat through the air. Beathard was never fully healthy in his last season at Iowa and continued to take a beating behind terrible pass protection, and when paired up with an underwhelming receiving corps, it didn't make a lot of sense for Iowa to air it out each game. This year, the pass protection appears to be light years ahead of where it was last year and the Hawkeyes have a bunch of new weapons at their disposal — all of last year, 13 Iowa players had a catch. Through non-conference play, 10 different players already have a reception, showing that Stanley isn't afraid to trust any of the players on the field, which is more than you could say about Beathard last year.
BSD: Penn State's rush defense has appeared vulnerable this year, and Iowa has just the man to exploit it in star tailback Akrum Wadley. Will the New Jersey native be able to carry the load after being limited to eight carries by an ankle injury against North Texas?
OTE: It sounds like Wadley was pulled from the North Texas game as a precaution after he limped off the field, so I expect him to be back to near 100 percent. His backup, James Butler, has been a wonderful compliment to Wadley this year, but will unfortunately be sidelined for at least a month with an elbow injury. Freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin are officially listed as co-second string running backs on the depth chart this week. They played in relief of Wadley and Butler in the second half last week and combined for 152 yards on 30 carries. Ferentz's game plan is going to be to use all three running backs to wear down the Penn State defense and control the time of possession.
BHGP: Kirk Ferentz has said this week that Wadley is 100 percent and that he could have gone back into the North Texas game at any point if he was needed. You could also say that it was curious timing for him to leave the game, too, because he played just three snaps after receiving an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for high-stepping into the end zone. Wadley has been in the doghouse before, but I would tend to believe that it was in fact an ankle injury rather than a conspiracy.
On one hand, Ferentz doesn't often disclose a lot about injuries so it's safe to say Wadley is probably somewhere around 80 or 90 percent at the very least. Regardless, Iowa is going to need him to be healthy if they want to beat Penn State on the ground, as he might be one of the most agile and elusive players in the entire country. On the other hand, him sitting the whole second half against North Texas goes to show that Iowa is confident that the rest of the running backs on the team are more than capable. After Butler went down with a nasty elbow injury, Iowa was willing to run freshmen Kelly-Martin and Young for the entirety of the second half even though the team was down at the time. The two combined for 30 carries and 152 yards in the second half, and while they missed some wide open holes due to a lack of patience, they showed that they're willing to attack the holes they do find. Having one of these two spell Wadley on occasion will be important to make sure Wadley stays healthy and effective throughout the game. Expect to see Young, who's more of a bruiser, back Wadley up most, but IKM will likely get some playing time as well.
BSD: Junior College transfer Nick Easley has burst on the scene and become Stanley's favorite receiver. With 16 receptions in three games, he has twice as many catches as any other Iowa player. What makes Easley such an appealing target, and how much has he helped Stanley achieve early success?
OTE: Before the season started, the weakest unit on the entire football team was supposed to be the receiving corps. Already thin on talent and production in 2016, it was decimated in the offseason by graduation, transfers, and retirement. The one returning player bringing any meaningful game experience, Matt Vandeberg, was injured for much of the offseason.
Easley's emergence as a primary weapon for Stanley has been a very pleasant surprise. Nick was a junior college All-American. He was originally committed to Iowa State, but defected to the Hawkeyes after they offered him a spot as a walk-on. He quietly moved up the depth chart during the summer, but no one really knew for sure if he was any good, or simply the best option.
Easley isn't very big, but he has deceptive speed and agility and always seems to be open. His experience in junior college has been a huge asset as well; he came to Iowa City ready to play without the need put him in the weight room for a few years or give him some garbage time experience against MAC teams. Vandeberg seems like he's still somewhat hindered by his offseason injury, and having a receiver like Easley who can be a consistent threat in the passing game has been huge for Stanley's development.
BHGP: I think it's just a chemistry thing. VandeBerg was out for the entirety of the spring with an injury and the two pass-catchers that Stanley seems to have developed the best rapport with are Easley and tight end Noah Fant, who is second on the team in targets but has been WAY overshot on a few deep balls thus far.
Easley is your prototypical possession receiver and a good enough route runner that he's often able to find the hole in the defense and sit there, which has probably inflated his reception total. Iowa runs a lot of short timing routes, and when they do this, teams have often keyed in on 6'5" Fant, who runs shorter patterns down the middle of the field and he creates matchup problems for single defenders in these situations, which has freed up Easley. While he's obviously the favorite receiver thus far, Stanley's willingness to throw to all receivers has certainly kept defenses from sitting on his routes.
BSD: With one sack, an interception, and four tackles for loss so far, defensive end Parker Hesse looks ready to have a breakout campaign. What should we expect from the junior in Big Ten play?
OTE: Parker has been an important part of the Iowa defense since he was a freshman. He's only listed at 6'3", 257, which is rather small for a defensive lineman, but he more than makes up for it with his speed and technique. Parker's athleticism allows him to stunt inside before the offensive line can adjust, cover the flats as well as a linebacker, or simply speed rush tackle or tight end. Iowa doesn't like to blitz very much, so having guys on the line like Parker who can generate a pass rush is essential to their success. Last year he had eight tackles for loss and four sacks, so with only 3 games played so far he's already on pace to beat those marks.
BHGP: Hesse has been a nice little story, as the former three-star recruit has steadily improved throughout his Iowa career. He's the most undersized defensive lineman on an Iowa team that has a bunch of linemen who are between 6'5" and 6'8", but he's the kind of high motor guy that defensive coordinator Phil Parker and Ferentz love. Because he's a bit undersized for his position, he can't always rely on power and can be seen getting overpowered by larger players, but he has good instincts. Take this play for example — he starts the play as a tackle, immediately recognizes the screen, and stops the play for a huge loss. I don't think he'll keep up the torrid pace that he started the year with, but I think that's also because the rest of the defense will start to get theirs.
BSD: In their only Power Five matchup this season, the Hawkeyes allowed 347 passing yards and four passing touchdowns to Iowa State. How does the Iowa defense plan on handling Trace McSorley and the explosive Penn State aerial attack?
OTE: I'm not going to lie, I'm a little worried about how Iowa matches up against Penn State's offense. Iowa was hardly able to slow Barkley and McSorley down last year, let alone make stops and get the ball back. Through three games, the cornerback play has been okay, but the safeties have been atrocious. They've constantly been caught out of position, missed tackles and bitten on play fakes. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker shook things up a bit this week, benching free safety Jake Gervase in favor of sophomore Amani Hooker.
I'm also not very keen on the matchup between Saquon Barkley and Iowa's linebackers. They've underperformed a little bit compared to expectations this year, and Bo Bower has been caught out of position a few too many times on big plays. McSorley isn't going to need to throw the ball much if Saquon keeps getting seven or eight yards per carry.
I do, however, think Iowa's defensive stats may be slightly misleading. They've played a lot of really vanilla base defense and given up a lot of yards instead of playing more aggressive like they would against tougher competition. Kirk Ferentz likes to play things close to the vest before conference play starts, and I think the playbook will open up a little bit on Saturday. I expect to see a few more blitzes, more nickel formations and more of Parker's "Raider" package on passing downs.
Still, the defense has had a lot of trouble getting off the field through three games. If Iowa wants to even sniff victory against Penn State, the defense is going to have to have a breakout game.
BHGP: The Iowa motto is and always has been "bend, don't break," and that's probably the way that they'll try to keep Penn State from connecting on big plays. I would expect the cornerbacks to give the wide receivers a healthy cushion and try to keep them in front of them and to force the Nittany Lions to beat them with a short passing attack. Ferentz and Parker have likely preached all week that while Penn State is a high scoring, explosive offense, they have also been horrific on third down. If Iowa can eliminate big plays and make the Nittany Lions drive down the field with shorter gains, especially through the air, they'll probably be able to limit the damage.
Two notes about the Iowa State game — first, Jack Trice Stadium has natural grass and playing on turf is an advantage to Iowa defenders. Two of the ISU touchdowns (including the 75-yarder) in this year's game were a direct result of Iowa defenders slipping on the grass, which has been a common theme for Iowa in recent years (see the 2016 Rose Bowl, for starters) for WHATEVER reason. The second is that Iowa has replaced first-year safety Jake Gervase, who made a habit of biting badly on play action and underneath routes, leaving deep receivers open for huge gains. I think both of these things will help Iowa's pass defense a bit, although not enough to completely shut down Trace McSorley and company. Their best shot will still be to surrender short gains in lieu of long ones.
BSD: The Hawkeyes are 13-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the Big Ten opener going for the Hawkeyes?
OTE: I'm still a little sore from watching the beating we got from McSorley and Barkley last year. Iowa probably won't be able to shut them down, but if the defense is able to make enough stops that the offense can keep up, I think they'll have a chance. Kirk Ferentz has a weird way of pulling a rabbit out of the hat when he plays Penn State under the lights, but I'm not about to jinx that by predicting it. Nittany Lions in a shootout. Iowa 38, Penn State 44.
BHGP: From a talent standpoint, Penn State is superior to the Hawkeyes. They have superior players at the skill positions, a more experienced quarterback, and I think I've read once or twice that they run a spread offense that Iowa stands absolutely no chance against. I do think the Hawkeyes will surprise some people, though, because they're not the same Iowa team you might be accustomed to from the Greg Davis era. They're not completely predictable and hell, they can even be fun to watch.
Bold prediction: On Iowa's first play from scrimmage, they'll run play-action and Nate Stanley will hit Ihmir Smith-Marsette streaking to the end zone for the score. Akrum Wadley and Co. will be able to wear down the front seven of the Nittany Lions, particularly the linebackers, and should be able to rip off big gains as the night progresses.
Will Iowa's defense come out motivated enough to slow down the Penn State offense enough to get the victory?
What's that? Saquon Barkley said what last year? Oh. I see.
Iowa 49, Penn State 0. Lock. It. In.
Thanks again to Creighton and GospelOfMax for giving us insight into the Iowa program. For more on Iowa sports and Big Ten coverage all season long, check out Black Heart Gold Pants and Off Tackle Empire!