2-Minute Drill: Penn State Nittany Lions at Iowa Hawkeyes

Penn State is a shark-filled gorge, but it's also a massive opportunity for Iowa

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College football is this if it’s nothing else: One week, the assignment is steer the truck through a carwash. Hey, that’s easy. The trick is just aligning the tires on the track that keeps your vehicle under the whirring and the soap and brushes.

The next week, you wear a red-white-and-blue helmet. You straddle a Harley-Davidson. And before you is a gorge somewhere in the southwest. Or some count of school buses, maybe a count as high as the teens.

Iowa made it OK through the car wash that was North Texas. Penn State is the gorge, the buses and, whoops, we left out the pool of hungry great white sharks.

The Nittany Lions are 3-0, No. 4 in the country and favored by 12 over the Hawkeyes in Saturday night's game at Kinnick Stadium. Last season, Penn State zipped past Iowa 41-14 at State College.

Look at it this way. At some point, stunt cyclist Evel Knievel saw not the Snake River Canyon but opportunity.

Game time is 6:30 p.m. and your channel is ABC.

Penn State rush defense vs. Iowa rush offense

Penn State’s defense hasn’t been challenged much this season. The Nittany Lions lead the nation in tackles for loss (34). Fourteen of these came in the opener against Akron. Sophomore defensive end Shareef Miller (6-5, 257) is second in the B1G with 4.0 tackles for loss.

Before last season, Tennessee hired away PSU defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Brent Pry had been head coach James Franklin’s co-defensive coordinator for five seasons between Vanderbilt and Penn State. The transition has been seamless.

Led by middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, the linebackers make PSU’s defense go. The Nittany Lions’ depth on the D-line (13 players listed in the two deep) sets it apart from most of the Big Ten right now.

Iowa’s offense has had trouble with run pressures in the first three weeks. The Hawkeyes should expect active linebackers streaming through gaps and not waiting for double teams to find them on the second level.

The Hawkeyes’ O-linemen maintain that they've transitioned OK since losing right tackle Ike Boettger for the season (Achilles tendon). But the Hawkeyes average just 3.83 yards per carry, 12th in the Big Ten. On third-and-3 or fewer yards to go, Iowa has averaged just 1.7 yards on 10 carries.

Opponents are sending bodies at Iowa’s running game and clogging it up. Iowa needs to counter that aggression.

Senior running back Akrum Wadley said the ankle problem that kept him out of the second half last week is fine. Iowa will be without senior running back James Butler (elbow) until Oct. 21. Freshmen Toren Young and Ivory Kelly-Martin combined for 152 yards and two TDs in the second half against North Texas.

Advantage: Penn State

Penn State pass defense vs. Iowa pass offense

Penn State is already up to six interceptions this season with cornerback Grant Haley leading with two. Yes, the Lions have faced Akron, Pitt (1-2) and Georgia State, but this is what great teams do. They smother lesser opponents. PSU’s six interceptions are sixth nationally and its nine overall takeaways vs. just two turnovers has it No. 2 in the nation with a 2.33 turnover margin.

Penn State safety Marcus Allen (6-2, 207) looks very NFL. He was the Lott Impact national defensive player of the week after racking up 13 tackles against Pitt. Opposing quarterbacks have averaged just 4.3 yards per attempt, and the Lions have yet to allow a TD pass through the air.

The Hawkeyes have allowed just four sacks this year (1.33 per game pace compared to 2.31 last year). Penn State is No. 2 in the B1G with 11.

It’s week 4 for first-year QB Nate Stanley. This is probably a week where tells, like snap count and favoring the right side of the field, get self-scouted.

Iowa tight ends: 'Encouraging where it's going'

Also, Iowa has the advantage of uncertainty. Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz might have some things the Penn State staff hasn’t seen. Iowa’s passing game also has players — like wide receivers Nick Easley, Matt VandeBerg and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson — who’ve shown they can make in-game adjustments and still have success.

Advantage: Push

Penn State rush offense vs. Iowa rush defense

Penn State runs a deadly run-pass option offense with varying paces, from neighborhood drive to dragster. It’s not like all-Big Ten and Heisman lister Saquon Barkley needs the help. He’s a 5-11, 230-pound weightroom winner with speed and quickness, a top-five NFL draft pick in Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s opinion.

Hlas: Hawkeyes can't let Barkley bite them again

A huge part of what makes that go is quarterback Trace McSorley. He makes pre-snap reads for one side of the field. And then during a play, he makes quick decisions based on what he sees on the other side. This gives Barkley a lot of favorable matchups.

“My point is with what we do in the run-pass options, he’s usually running into good looks,” PSU head coach James Franklin said. “Now he’s one-on-one with a safety or a corner or it’s his job to block (make the defender miss) that one unblocked defender and make a big play. He’s really good at that obviously. So I think that’s a factor.”

Barkley is good at that. He’s tied for the nation’s lead with nine plays of 20-plus yards. He’s averaging 11.2 yards a touch so far this season.

Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell said in the North Texas postgame that the ankle he injured at Iowa State was fine. Not great, but fine. He also added that’s probably as good as it’s going to get with football being, you know, football.

Angles will be important if Iowa wants to dent Barkley’s production. Iowa’s defense is built to squeeze speed into spaces it wants speed to go. Run support doesn’t get a lot of attention for a defense. That and rallying defenders to the ball need to be prime for the Hawkeyes Saturday.

Advantage: Penn State

Penn State pass offense vs. Iowa pass defense

So, with Barkley, why doesn’t Iowa put eight or nine defenders on the line of scrimmage? Mostly because that’s what Penn State wants. The beauty of offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead’s scheme is there’s always an “out.” When defenses stack the box, McSorley can beat you with an RPO throw to where the seventh or eighth defender was supposed to be.

This takes a sharp quarterback, and McSorely is certainly that. He triggered an offense last season that set records for total yards (6,056) and passing yards (3,650) and tied the school record for points scored (526). Wins aren’t strictly a QB stat (they’re not), but last season was Penn State’s first Big Ten championship in 22 seasons.

Barkley is Penn State’s leading receiver with 11 catches for 241 yards and two TDs. He’s fourth in the nation with 182.7 yards from scrimmage per game. Tight end Mike Gesicki (6-6, 250) has 12 catches and four TDs.

Some eyes will be on the decision defensive coordinator Phil Parker made last week to get sophomore free safety Amani Hooker into the lineup for junior Jake Gervase. Hooker hadn’t played safety during a game until last week. In week 2 at Iowa State, he played 14 snaps as a dime defensive back. His first step is going to be a doozy.

Parker has blitzed maybe 10 percent of the time this season and just once last week. Does Iowa spend time trying to come up with pressures? Or does Iowa try to keep everyone in front of it and “bend don’t break”? It’s probably going to be that “bend don’t break” thing. That doesn’t mean you won’t see some “against tendency” thinking, but anything too cute that leaves an opening, Barkley will be contemplating his TD celebration.

Advantage: Penn State

Special teams

Franklin loves his special teams.

“Our kickoff team has been excellent all year long,” Franklin said. “It’s fun to watch. I think when you kick off as many times as we did on Saturday (vs. Georgia State) and can watch the sixth kickoff and see the guys are still full speed, flying down the field, that is a great way to evaluate.”

The Lions have allowed 1 punt return yard this season. That’s second in the Big Ten to the Hawkeyes, who’ve allowed just 1 punt return for no yards. Penn State is sixth in the league, allowing just 18.0 yards a kick return. The Hawkeyes are second in the league with 14.8 yards per return.

Punt returner is decided advantage Penn State, with wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins averaging 20.2 yards on 10 returns. Kick returns also is advantage Penn State with Barkley averaging 26.7 per return. Iowa freshman Ivory Kelly-Martin averages 20.7 yards on four returns.

Penn State punter Blake Gillikin is fourth in the league with 45.0 yards per punt. Iowa’s Colten Rastetter is 10th at 39.8.

Iowa’s Miguel Recinos is off to the races after winning the field goal and kickoff jobs in camp. He’s 3 of 3 on field goals and has gotten air under kickoffs to help with Iowa’s B1G No. 2 kick cover unit.

Advantage: Push

Intangibles

1. The Big Pink — Franklin called Iowa’s pink opponents locker rooms “cool.”

“I’m not going to make a big deal out of it with our guys,” he said this week. “I’m actually going to talk to our guys about it being a really, really nice gesture by the University of Iowa to welcome Penn State, since our original school colors are pink and black, and how wonderful it is and what a wonderful gesture it is that they painted their locker room pink for us.”

OK then.

2. Icing on the ice — The Penn State coach stepped into it last week when he called a timeout late in the Lions’ 56-0 victory over Georgia State. GSU lined up for a field goal and, blammo, time out, Franklin. Heat rained down, because that’s how college football is. It’s a game of winners and losers, but not too much of a loser, right? Anyway, Franklin said he had his fourth team on the field. It had no idea what to do, so timeout. He also said nothing should come free on the football field.

He’s right.

3. So, Nos. 1 and 2 were a set up . . . — If you think Franklin is the kind of coach who’d gut you and count his money while doing it, well yeah. That’s the point of this whole thing. Franklin the Figurehead has been a smashing success and you’re going to get to know him pretty well. The Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions are scheduled every season through 2021.

Iowa-Penn State prediction

Penn State will win if ... it can spread Iowa’s defense and exploit its missteps and bad decisions. Defensively, Penn State will probably sell out against the run and make Stanley show everyone what he’s got.

Iowa will win if ... it can limit explosive plays to . . . three, that’s probably the number. Another number, hold the Lions to less than 200 rushing yards. Another number, posses the ball for as close to 40 minutes as possible.

Prediction: Penn State 34, Iowa 24

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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