Penn State and Iowa have played a lot of weird games over the years. There was the 2004 defensive “battle” that Iowa won 6-4. Seven years later, the two sides once again combined to score fewer than 20 points when Penn State won 13-3 on Yom Kippur. I’ll always remember watching on my DVR as Rob Bolden completed a pass by bouncing the ball off the umpire’s foot.
Back in 2008, Iowa ruined Penn State’s perfect season with a last-second field goal at Kinnick, and the Hawkeyes stole the revenge game in 2009 thanks to Adrian Clayborn returning a blocked punt for a touchdown. Perhaps the Nittany Lions finally got revenge last year when Trace McSorley broke Hawkeye hearts with his game-saving touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson.
Both Penn State and Iowa have won division titles and played in the Rose Bowl recently, but both usually find themselves eclipsed by more powerful rivals. Once again, the two seem evenly matched. They’re ranked right next to each other in the AP Poll and have already lost tough home games that they needed to win for Playoff contention.
Championship hopes seem out of reach, but Saturday’s game will go a long way towards bowl placement. Plus, it would be nice for the Lions to prove that they can close out a game against a quality opponent. For more on the Iowa side, we reached out to GospelOfMax from SB Nation’s Iowa blog, Black Heart Gold Pants. Thanks to Max for helping us out with our game coverage!
Black Shoe Diaries: Nate Stanley looked shaky in the opener against Northern Illinois, but since then he’s been one of the top quarterbacks in the Big Ten. Compared to 2017, he’s bumped his completion rate by five percent and his yards per attempt by more than one. What’s the biggest difference between Stanley this year and last?
Black Heart Gold Pants: The biggest difference between Nate Stanley of last year and Nate Stanley of this year has been his ability to complete passes downfield. Last year, particularly early, he was overthrowing his receivers by a good five to 10 yards when they were going deep. This year, he’s showcased an ability to put more touch on the ball in order to allow his receivers to get under his passes, and it’s really helped provide his completion percentage with a nice bump. It doesn’t hurt that he seems to have developed a better rapport with his receivers this season — oftentimes in 2017, he wasn’t quite on the same page with his pass-catchers, but it looks like they have some great chemistry so far this season.
BSD: Ivory Kelly-Martin has been banged up this season, but against Maryland he led the backfield with 24 carries and 98 yards. Is he the bell cow going forward, or will we see more of a committee approach?
BHGP: You’ll certainly see Iowa go with a committee approach this weekend. When healthy, Kelly-Martin has been the lead back, but Ferentz & Ferentz (head coach Kirk Ferentz and offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz) have mixed in a good dosage of the other two. Mekhi Sargent, a JUCO transfer out of Iowa Western, has generally been the third-down back because of his extraordinary blocking skills and ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. Toren Young has also been very productive this season, although when IKM is healthy, he’s been relegated almost exclusively to second-half action. He’s Iowa’s best between-the-tackles runner, and it appears as though the Hawks like to see him punish worn-down defenses.
BSD: Noah Fant is already four catches away from his 2017 total, and he’s leading the Hawkeyes in receptions this season. We know that he’s a huge target and a great red zone weapon, but what else makes him such a reliable target for Stanley with at least three connections in every game so far?
BHGP: There are probably two things that make Noah Fant such an easy target for Stanley to find. One, of course, is his combination speed and size. He’s really yet to go up against a defensive back who has the size to shut him down, but he’s also a complete mismatch for linebackers who aren’t fast enough to keep up with him. This makes him an easy deep threat for Stanley, but also someone that you can run out in the flat and he’ll beat opposing defenders to the pylon more often than not in the red zone.
The other thing is that teams can’t really focus in on him with double coverage as much as they’d like because Stanley does an excellent job spreading the ball around — most notably to T.J. Hockenson, another matchup nightmare at tight end for the Hawks who somehow flies under the radar. It’s difficult for teams to focus a linebacker and safety on Fant because, well, there’s a slightly smaller version of him on the other side of the field who can beat you in the same exact ways. He’s just second on the team in receptions and touchdowns to Fant, but he also has 100 more yards receiving.
BSD: A.J. Epenesa and Anthony Nelson have combined for 11 sacks this year. Which guy is the more dangerous pass rusher? Do they have the ability to limit Trace McSorley’s scrambling ability without the use of a spy?
BHGP: I think Epenesa is the better pure pass rusher of the two, but that’s probably because he is almost exclusively a pass rush specialist right now. Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse are actually Iowa’s starting defensive ends, and that allows Epenesa to come in fresh on obvious passing downs and cause havoc.
Whether or not Iowa will use a spy, I’m not sure. They’ve gone up against some quarterbacks this season who are at least moderate threats to run the football in Peyton Ramsey and Tyrrell Pigrome, but they certainly haven’t faced anyone with the big-play ability of Trace McSorley. If I recall correctly, Iowa used Josey Jewell as a spy last year against Penn State, so it wouldn’t surprise me if they did again. On the other hand, Iowa’s limited opposing running backs all season long and opposing teams average less than 80 yards per game on the ground against them, so it wouldn’t shock me if [defensive coordinator] Phil Parker chooses not to utilize one early. This is Iowa’s best defensive line since Adrian Clayborn terrorized folks in 2010, so them having his trust wouldn’t be out of the question.
BSD: Iowa has churned out some elite defensive backs lately in Josh Jackson and Desmond King. Is there another star lurking in the secondary? Can the unit shut down Penn State’s only productive receiver in K.J. Hamler?
BHGP: Whether there’s an elite cornerback has yet to be seen, as Iowa’s currently trotting out two true freshman at corner and have been for the past three weeks. In that time, they really haven’t been tested very much, so it’s hard to say what we really have in Iowa City at that position right now. When they’ve been tested, they’ve mostly come up big, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Penn State is able to gain some yardage through the air in this one. Iowa’s only allowed one play of 50+ yards and two of 40+ yards this season, but Penn State is always a danger to find an explosive play, so it’ll certainly be something to watch out for.
BSD: It seems like public opinion on Kirk Ferentz goes back and forth from year to year. Sometimes he’s the old conservative coach who is stuck in the past. Sometimes he’s a steady talent developer who gets more out of his three-star recruits than most guys get out of blue chippers. Is the coach’s stock up this year due to the 6-1 record, or is he being docked for losing to Wisconsin at home?
BHGP: Ferentz obviously has his detractors after 20 seasons, which isn’t all that surprising. Really, though, every single coach on this planet not named Nick Saban probably does. I think the noise has certainly died down since 2015, but it really was getting kind of loud in the early 2010s, when Iowa went 4-8 in 2012 and then followed that with two relatively uninspired seasons. If you’re allowed to coach through down periods rather than getting replaced after a bad year or two, that’s just kind of the way things are going to go.
That said, his stock is certainly up in 2018 and while fans are really disappointed in the Wisconsin loss, I don’t think they really put that on him. That loss was incredibly fluky in that Wisconsin took advantage of two punt return fumbles and, well, won by two scores. Alex Hornibrook and Jonathan Taylor also decided to play like gods that day, which certainly didn’t help. But, that loss might’ve been the turning point in the season - since then, Iowa’s thrown up 40-plus points in two consecutive road games and ripped Maryland to shreds, only allowing two total plays in Iowa territory all game and finally conceding over 100 yards on the final drive of the game. Those teams might not be the best in the conference, but how often do you see a Ferentz-led team put up numbers like those against anyone? They’re playing with a chip on their shoulder, and that leads me into this next question!
BSD: The Hawkeyes are five-point underdogs on Saturday. How do you see the game going for Iowa?
BHGP: My goodness, have they been playing with a chip on their shoulder. They realize they should’ve won that Wisconsin game and since then, they’ve been playing like a team that wants to go to the Big Ten Championship game against all odds. I think they’ll continue playing that way this weekend, too, but oh boy will the elements make this a potentially hideous game.
I think that bad weather generally favors the Hawkeyes, but they’ve also struggled quite a bit on grass for whatever reason, and them probably playing on incredibly wet grass makes me cautious about how I’m picking this one. I predicted this one to be a game where both teams score in the 30s on our podcast, but after hearing about the weather, I’ll lower those a bit. Iowa’s downhill running game and reliable tight end corps give Iowa an edge, and this defense has another productive day. Give me Iowa over Penn State, 24-21.
Thanks again to GospelOfMax for taking the time to answer our questions. For more on Iowa sports all year round, be sure to check out Black Heart Gold Pants!