Iowa Football

Iowa football look ahead: Penn State makes a super-late QB change and let's see what happens

'Play me or trade me' doesn't turn out great all that often for a college football player

Penn State head coach James Franklin and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz shake hands at midfield after a game at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Max Petrosky/Freelance)
Penn State head coach James Franklin and Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz shake hands at midfield after a game at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018. (Max Petrosky/Freelance)
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You usually don’t sign up for drama in spring practice. You can’t win or lose a job in spring. You’re there to keep your place, learn, grow and all of that football good talky stuff.

 
Penn State head coach James Franklin could’ve said all of the right stuff. He could’ve said at the end of spring, of course, senior-to-be Tommy Stevens is “our guy.” And then, in August, Franklin could’ve pulled the old switcheroo.

Franklin didn’t do that.

Instead, after the Nittany Lions finished spring practice in mid-April, Franklin declined to name a starting QB. Stevens was limited in spring practice after surgery on a foot. He also was limited because of injury for most of 2018.

Stevens and his family were acutely aware it was the senior’s last shot to show something. They felt a sense of urgency and opportunity fading.

At the end of spring, Franklin hadn’t seen enough of Stevens to make that promise. It was going to remain an open competition with junior Sean Clifford.

“We want to name the starter as soon as we possibly can, but we’re not ready to do that right now,” Franklin said. “It’s going to be more of a true competition.”

Welp, NCAA transfer portal. For awhile, it looked like Iowa still might see Stevens. It’s June and QBs looking for guaranteed starting spots were running out of options. Miami (Ohio) and Illinois were on Stevens’ radar before he finally ended up at Mississippi State, joining former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead.

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It wasn’t a sudden decision. Stevens talked with Franklin and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne a few months before spring started.

Does “guarantee me a spot” guy ever win these arguments?

If anything, that probably turns the lights out for a coach. You know all of that stuff we do called “practice?” Can that not count?

Now, was this Stevens not wanting to sit through the gamble that he’d be stuck at Penn State without a job? Or was it Franklin just liking option No. 2 that much better?

Clifford was a four-star recruit in Penn State’s 2017 class. He picked the Lions over Michigan State and Louisville.

He’s added 30 pounds and is 6-2, 218. Clifford probably won’t match Trace McSorley’s production as a rusher (798 yards, 12 TDs last season), but his feet are part of his game.

The power structure of college football, it’s endlessly fascinating. Players keep trying to topple it, but it always seems to end with a coach setting the course. For this and this alone, long live the transfer portal.

Penn State skill players

We’ve been over QB.

Penn State has taken some hits at running back the past few seasons. Saquon Barkley, of course, happened. Last season, Miles Sanders put up 1,274 yards and nine TDs and then went to the NFL.

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This is Penn State. Running backs line up and hope to be picked to play here. Sophomore Ricky Slade probably slides into this role. He was PSU’s No. 3 rusher last season with 257 yards and six TDs on just 45 carries. He was a Rivals four-star with offers from Ohio State, Florida, Iowa and Nebraska. Notre Dame transfer C.J. Holmes also is in the mix. He’s another Rivals four-star who had an offer from Alabama.

It’s probably safe to assume Penn State will have three or four running backs who are capable of averaging 5.0 yards a carry. And they might need that. McSorley’s feet were the great bailout for the Lions’ offense.

At one point last fall, according to Pro Football Focus, Penn State led the nation in dropped passes. We talked earlier about the balance of power in college football. When you lead the nation in drops, you’re probably going to get a new receivers coach. That happened with PSU.

As a freshman last season, tight end Pat Freiermuth led Penn State with eight touchdown receptions.

Penn State defense

What could make Penn State an extremely tough out in the East this season is a star-studded D-line.

The defense tied a school record with 47 sacks in 2018, and 38.5 of those were generated by the D-line. End Yetur Gross-Matos was top 10 in the Big Ten with 8.0 sacks, including 2.0 against the Hawkeyes in a 30-24 win last season.

Defensive tackles help win championships. The Lions return Robert Windsor (6-4, 300), who also was top 10 in the league with 7.5 sacks, with a solid group that should make the Lions tough to run the ball against.

PSU’s defense puts it in a “sleeper” position in the East Division. The stop in Iowa City also might have some say in that.

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Super hot, possibly relevant take on this game that’s 100-something days away: Iowa’s offense has to show up with its cleats on. Yes, the Lions have averaged — sit down for a second — 496.6 yards against Iowa in the last three games. This PSU offense doesn’t have Saquon Barkley or Trace McSorley.

Iowa’s offense has averaged 285.6 in the last three vs. PSU. This conclusion doesn’t come with a straight line, but the simple, raw numbers point at Iowa’s offense and wonder if it shouldn’t be pulling a little more weight.

Yes, the games have been close the last two seasons, but PSU could win its sixth straight vs. Iowa this year. This is a chance for a gain, some status, for the 2019 Hawkeyes.

Hawkeyes Look Ahead

Oct. 12 vs. Penn State (at Kinnick Stadium)

Week before: Michigan at Michigan Stadium

On the horizon: Purdue at Kinnick

For Penn State

Week before: Purdue at Beaver Stadium, State College, Pa.

On the horizon: Michigan at Beaver Stadium

Penn State Nittany Lions

Game: Oct. 12 at Kinnick Stadium

Coach: James Franklin (45-21, 6th season at Penn State)

2018 record: 9-4, 6-3 in Big Ten East Division

Scoring offense: 33.8 points per game (3rd in B1G, T-31st nationally — Notre Dame was 42nd at 31.4)

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Total offense: 423.0 yards per game (5th B1G, 45th nationally — Oregon was 41st at 427.2)

Scoring defense: 20.5 points allowed per game (4th B1G, 23rd nationally — Iowa was 11th at 17.8)

Total defense: 350.5 yards allowed per game (5th B1G, 34th nationally — Iowa State was No. 33 with 349.2)

Series: Iowa trails this series 12-14, and Penn State has won five straight. Iowa hasn’t beaten the Nittany Lions since 2010.

Last meeting: It was last season. On first-and-goal from Penn State’s 3 with 3:18 left in the game and trailing 30-24, the Hawkeyes gave themselves a chance. Then, that first down. The snap went off just before the playclock expired. QB Nate Stanley wasn’t ready for the snap. TE Noah Fant froze. Kirk Ferentz couldn’t get a timeout called while sprinting down the sideline. Easy pick for the Nittany Lions and Iowa’s fifth consecutive loss to Penn State.

Super early, totally unofficial spread prediction: Penn State by 3.5. If it’s a night game at Kinnick, maybe it’s a pick ’em. If the Lions’ new QB is a miss and demonstrates “miss” in the first five weeks, obviously, that would track well for the Hawkeyes. Probably don’t count on that.

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

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