5 Things: Iowa football vs. Penn State

There's a threat not named Saquon Barkley for the Nittany Lions; the Hawkeyes are pretty good at home generally in night games AND against the spread

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The last time a top-five team came to Kinnick Stadium, most of us weren’t really wondering whether or not Iowa would lose, but by how much. The Michigan edition of 5 Things last season wondered if Iowa would take back-to-back 25-point losses for the first time since 2000. Obviously, those of us with that mentality were very wrong.

So maybe we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the notion of another Iowa upset over No. 4 Penn State — even if it looks worse for the Hawkeyes on paper than it did a year ago for that 41-14 thing in Happy Valley. Let’s look at 5 Things: Iowa vs. Penn State.

1. The other threat

OK, so last year against Penn State was pretty much awful across the board for the Iowa football team. That much isn’t really debated and won’t be anytime soon. But what can be nitpicked from that loss is who hurt Iowa the worst.

The easy answer here is running back Saquon Barkley. As a guy who probably could’ve gotten well-paid in this year’s NFL Draft, Barkley is back after rushing 20 times for 167 yards and a touchdown while adding a 44-yard touchdown catch. But if Iowa’s coaching staff was honest with you, they’d probably say quarterback Trace McSorley had as much or more of an impact.

McSorley went 11 of 18 for 240 yards and two touchdowns through the air while carrying 14 times for 40 yards and another score on the ground. He extended plays with his feet and found receivers without much issue against a pretty talented Iowa secondary that featured Desmond King, Brandon Snyder and Greg Mabin (all either gone or hurt now).

At this point of game week last year, Iowa players said keeping “contain” on McSorley was vital. Defensive end Parker Hesse said then “(he’s) extremely elusive. He likes to throw on the move; he’s always moving to find new lanes to throw it in.”

The Hawkeyes failed fairly miserably to do that last year. And as much as Barkley cannot be ignored, McSorley is back, too. If he has a game like last year, it doesn’t matter a ton what Barkley does.

2. Top 5 things

A numerologist might be able to tell you if it means something that one of the 5 Things this week is about top-five teams, but we can’t. The entry about top-five teams in 5 Things should probably be the No. 5 entry, but that’s reserved for Against the Spread, so maybe none of this means anything in numerology.

In any case, sans digression, Penn State enters Kinnick Stadium No. 4 in the country in the USA Today Coaches poll. Iowa is 4-9 under Coach Kirk Ferentz against teams ranked in the top five — both regular season and bowls included.

Facing top-five teams is a daunting task for any program — whether said program is in the top five itself or not. In that context, having a losing record shouldn’t necessarily be an indictment on a coach or a program.

Ferentz’s Hawkeyes lost the first six games to top-five teams from 1999-2006, but then won three straight in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The Hawkeyes beat the Nittany Lions twice as a top-five team in that span, 24-23 vs. then-No. 3 Penn State in 2008 and 21-10 vs. then-No. 5 Penn State in 2009. Iowa dropped a 2013 game to No. 4 Ohio State, then lost those two games at the end of 2015 to No. 5 Michigan State and in the Rose Bowl to No. 5 Stanford. Then of course there was last year against No. 2 Michigan, Keith Duncan’s leg and a rush of the field.

That 1999-2006 stretch each were blowouts — most notably the Orange Bowl against USC — but since 2013, the Hawkeyes have, except for the Rose Bowl, played top-five teams close. The Hawkeyes will need the defense that showed up Week 1 to keep that trend going.

(Also, that’s five paragraphs of content just to bring the shtick of this entry full circle.)

3. In the heat of the night

Everyone loves night games right? Well, maybe not those of us on deadline. (OK, I know no one cares about deadlines.) But really, there’s an undeniable energy that comes with the sun going down and lights coming on.

The Hawkeyes have played 12 night games (5 p.m. kickoff or later) at Kinnick Stadium in the Ferentz era, and Iowa has been money in those situations. Ferentz’s teams are 9-3 at Kinnick in night games, with the only three losses coming to Iowa State in 2002 (Ferentz actually referenced that Seneca Wallace performance after the North Texas win), Ohio State in 2006 and Penn State in 2012.

Iowa has won four straight night games at Kinnick, two apiece in the last two seasons — and a pair of them coming on game-winning field goals. If anyone sees Marshall Koehn in Iowa City on Saturday, it’s probably good karma.

Having all day to tailgate helps the fans be at peak fandom — we’ll call it that — by kickoff. And with the new Children’s Hospital tradition, Saturday offers the first time Kinnick will get to do so all lit up.

4. Cold as ice

Surely very few people were paying close attention to the end of Penn State’s game last Saturday against Georgia State. With the game all but finished, the Nittany Lions were up 56-0 and the Panthers were trying to get on the board with a field goal with 11 seconds to go.

As Georgia State kicker Brandon Wright lined up to attempt his kick, Franklin called timeout. The oft-used strategy of icing the kicker is one college football — well, every level of football, actually — coaches love to use it, even if it either doesn’t work or doesn’t have the effect they’re hoping for.

For his part, Franklin offered an explanation for icing Wright in such a lopsided game. He said his defense was having trouble getting line up properly. Still, it’s a coldblooded look in that kind of a game. But hey, in this case, it did work. Wright missed the second attempt and Penn State preserved the shutout.

5. Against the spread

Saturday’s game opened in Las Vegas with a 13.5 point advantage to Penn State, and quickly moved down before settling at Penn State minus-12. Iowa rarely is a more than a touchdown underdog at home, but here we are.

Kirk Ferentz is 138-92 as head coach at Iowa, and his Hawkeyes have only been an underdog of more than plus-7 30 times total (16 of those coming in his first two seasons) and just 12 times at home. In that span, Iowa is 20-10 against the spread when opponents are favored by more than seven points while going 8-22 outright in those games. At Kinnick Stadium, Iowa is 8-4 against a spread of more than seven and 4-8 outright under Ferentz.

Excluding those first two seasons (where Iowa went 4-19 overall), the Hawkeyes are 10-4 against the spread as an underdog of that size and 5-9 outright. Iowa has covered four of its last five as underdogs at greater than plus-7 and won two of those games. Those games: 14-13 win against Michigan (covered plus-24) in 2016; 26-24 loss to Wisconsin (covered plus-9.5) in 2014; 28-9 loss to Wisconsin (didn’t cover plus-9) in 2013; 13-7 loss to Nebraska (covered plus 14.5) in 2012; 24-23 win against Penn State (covered plus-7.5) in 2008.

And just remember: Ferentz knelt at the two yard-line last Saturday against North Texas when a field goal or touchdown would’ve covered. That just serves as a reminder to never bet on sports for real money because you’ll hate yourself.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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