Let’s call the next two weeks what they are for Iowa’s football team: The Season.
If the 6-1 Hawkeyes find ways to Swarm out of Penn State Saturday and Purdue the following week with wins, the world will open up wide for them. The remaining schedule of Northwestern at home, Illinois on the road and Nebraska at home would scream “11-1!” OK, it would at least suggest as much. Northwestern isn’t to be dismissed lightly.
Whoa, Nellie! Getting way ahead of things here. Penn State awaits. At Penn State.
Well, yes. Of course. We’re talking about a Penn State program that not only owns a four-game winning streak over the Hawkeyes, but has won 25 of its last 30 games and was outscored by a mere total of 12 points in the five losses.
But something exhilarating happened in Big Ten football Saturday night that altered the way Iowa’s schedule and the Big Ten West race are viewed. Purdue gave Ohio State a righteous 49-20 thrashing in West Lafayette, a Woodshed II if you will.
The Boilermakers led 21-6 after three quarters, then ripped off four touchdown plays of 40-plus yards in the game’s last 11:39. It was as dazzling and stunning as Iowa’s 55-24 beatdown of the Buckeyes last November.
So Purdue has forcefully joined the discussion about which team from the West will be playing in the Big Ten’s championship game. It’s a free-for-all right now, with Northwestern at 4-1 in the league, and Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin at 3-1.
All have plenty of challenges ahead. Northwestern hosts Wisconsin Saturday, and must go to Iowa. Between those two games is a home clash with Notre Dame. Purdue goes to Michigan State Saturday, and hosts Wisconsin later. In November the Badgers will have the same two-game gauntlet as Iowa now faces, playing at Penn State and Purdue in succession.
If the Hawkeyes fall at Penn State, they take a back seat in this conversation. If you objectively look at the way the two teams have played in the last two weeks, you would say Iowa is better. If you asked Indiana, which got whomped 42-16 by Iowa the week before its 33-28 defeat to Penn State, it would probably say Iowa without hesitation. The Hoosiers racked up 554 yards and 32 first downs against the Nittany Lions as opposed to 330 and 22 against the Hawkeyes.
However, Saturday night in West Lafayette reminded us for the umpteenth time that what happened last week often doesn’t translate into what happens this week.
That said, the way Iowa’s defense has played through seven games gives great reason to believe this year’s meeting won’t resemble last year’s in Iowa City. That was a strange one, statistically. Penn State scored on the game’s final play for a 21-19 win, but had a 579-273 advantage in yards and ran 99 plays (!) to Iowa’s 45.
The Lions also had Saquon Barkley.
This season’s defensive numbers skew in the Hawkeyes’ favor. In conference play, Iowa has allowed 6.2 fewer points, 70 fewer rushing yards and 148 less total yards per game than Penn State. That’s a lot of yards.
Offense is a different story. Iowa’s has been good, but the Lions are averaging 71 more total yards and 83.7 more rushing yards than the Hawkeyes. Trace McSorley is the best quarterback Iowa will face this regular season, a fact the Hawkeyes know well.
Yet, Penn State has the look of a talented also-ran, a team that doesn’t quite have what its 2016 Big Ten champs and 2017 Fiesta Bowl winner had. It has played big games at home against Ohio State and Michigan State and faltered down the stretch. It was pushed to the end against an Indiana team that ran 100 (100!!!) plays.
So anything goes Saturday in Happy Valley. It seems like a Citrus Bowl-elimination game. That Jan. 1 Orlando spectacle had two representatives at Kinnick Stadium Saturday. Billy McClary of the Citrus’ selection committee was underdressed for the 48-degree kickoff temperature that was joined by a merciless wind of over 20 mph.
“It’s cold, man,” McClary said. “But we still came.”
This week and the next will determine if his bowl keeps the Hawkeyes in their sights. This is The Season.
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