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CEDAR RAPIDS — The hurdle. Everyone remembers it.
Saquon Barkley took a pass in the flat for Penn State in the fourth quarter of its 2017 game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium and saw defensive back Josh Jackson staring right at him. But Barkley suddenly because Superman, literally jumping over Jackson as he dove to make the tackle, sticking the landing and converting a third-and-long into a PSU first down.
It was part of an absurd individual performance for the now New York Giants running back: 358 all-purpose yards, including 305 on offense.
Penn State returns to Kinnick on Saturday in the nation’s biggest game of the week, the No. 4 Nittany Lions against the No. 3 Hawkeyes. PSU has another potential offensive game breaker that Iowa’s defense must contain, though this time it’s a receiver in senior Jahan Dotson.
“I’m as impressed with (him) as anybody we’ve seen this year,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz. “I say that with all due respect (because) we’ve played against some really good players so far. But he’s outstanding.”
Like Barkley, Dotson is considered a first-round NFL draft pick. He had eight catches for 84 yards and a pair of touchdowns last week in a big win over Indiana, including an 8-yarder in the second quarter in which he caught a pass from quarterback Sean Clifford one handed in the back of the end zone, somehow managing to get a foot down inbounds at the same time.
It was brilliant, it was incredible. It was the 18th time Dotson and Clifford have hooked up on a TD pass, a Penn State record.
There is no question the two have developed a great rapport.
“(We) know that we just have to stay alive (as receivers) and scramble drills,” Dotson told reporters postgame this past Saturday. “We literally preach it every single Sunday. So (it’s) just staying alive with him, making sure you keep your eyes on him while he’s scrambling (because) we know he’s going to make a play, make the right decision.”
From Nazareth, Pa., Dotson isn’t necessarily a big guy at 5-foot-11 and 184 pounds, but his combination of route running, great hands, quickness and toughness has made him right now the Big Ten Conference’s best receiver. He leads the league with 35 catches and six touchdowns, at least one in each of Penn State’s five games.
He’s also a dangerous punt returner.
“He’s smart, he’s got elite ball skills, maybe some of the best ball skills that I’ve ever been around,” said Penn State Coach James Franklin. “He is smooth and fluid, doesn’t look like he’s running sometimes, but no one can catch him.”
Penn State offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich also mentioned the way Dotson finishes plays after he makes a catch.
“There are a few guys that he reminds me of, (but) I don’t like to get into too many comparisons, however,” Yurcich said. “He’s a guy who is really good with the ball in his hands. He finishes his catches with tough runs, lowers his pads and brings a physical element and a finish. If you watch him, you’ll see that’s where the magic exists with him. To me, it’s how he gets open, it’s his ball skills, catching the ball, and then it’s his ability to finish after the catch that makes him a complete receiver.”
Dotson had eight receptions for 139 yards and a touchdown in last year’s game against Iowa, a 41-21 Hawkeyes win at State College. Iowa, obviously, has been great this season defensively, especially at creating turnovers.
It doesn’t allow the deep ball to be completed very often, something Dotson definitely will challenge. This whole Dotson-Iowa defense matchup is perhaps the most intriguing in this huge game.
The Hawkeyes know it.
“You watch him play, there’s no wasted movement,” Ferentz said. “He’s concise, everything is really sharp. I have to think the pro guys watching him have to like him. He’s a really decisive player, he’s a talented player, but he’s a good football player. He plays hard.
“That’s the thing about them. They’ve got a lot of guys that are just really good players ... That’s what you have to realize. You’re playing a team that can close the gap really fast because they’ve got some guys. He’s one of those guys. He’s THE guy, a really good guy.”
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