Iowa Football

Play Action: No. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes at No. 16 Penn State Nittany Lions

Can Iowa make this a one-stop game? If it does, maybe there's a breakthrough

Penn State hosts Iowa this Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
Penn State hosts Iowa this Saturday at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

No. 18 Iowa (6-1, 3-1 Big Ten) travels to State College, Pa., for a matchup with No. 16 Penn State (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday at Beaver Stadium. Kickoff is 2:30 p.m. and the game will be televised on ESPN.

The Nittany Lions’ Vibe

1. All hail Trace McSorley — Penn State’s game notes make it look like Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley invented football. That’s not an insult. You could make an argument that he’s reinvented the QB position at Penn State.

He’s the career leader in passing yards (8,830), career 200-yard passing games (26), career completion percentage (60.3), career total offense (10,283), career rushing TDs for a QB (26), career TDs responsible for (96), career 300-yard passing games (10), career interception percentage (1.98 percent) and career TD passes (70).

McSorley is a yardage and points ATM. In two games against the Hawkeyes, the 6-0, 201-pounder has put up 625 yards of total offense, three TD passes to one interception and has averaged 6.2 yards on 101 plays.

If Iowa is going to win this, it will have to put up at least one late and critical stop on McSorley. Everyone knows it.

2. Points-a-lanche — Points per game for the Nittany Lions is deceiving. Right now, PSU is second in the Big Ten with 42.6 points per game. That’s for the whole season. The last three games that number has fallen to 25.3. Then again, Ohio State and Michigan State were two of those three. They were losses.

Trend it out farther: The Lions have scored 30 or more 23 times in the last 27 games.

Yards come cheap for some spread offenses. What makes spread offenses dangerous is the ability to turn yards into points. Penn State has earned respect here.

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3. What do you make of this metric? — This will immediately put you on the defensive. I can already see the “Iowa develops its stars” emails, tweets, etc. I do think recruiting rankings fit somewhere in the overall evaluation of a roster. It’s a starting point. Where it goes from there is, in my opinion, what really matters, but everyone starts somewhere.

PSU coach James Franklin has put a super-mega premium on recruiting and the stars have poured into Happy Valley.

Going off Rivals’ rankings, through the 2015-18 recruiting classes, Penn State has signed 43 4-star recruits and three 5-stars.

Over the same period, Iowa brought in six 4-stars and one 5-star.

The contrast is noteworthy. Beyond that, you know Ferentz Iowa knows it has to play around that. You’ve known that for quite some time. This is the fight Iowa fights against programs with 100,000-seat stadiums.

4. Disrupters — Penn State is good at this sort of thing.

The Lions are second in the league with 25.0 sacks. Defensive ends Shaka Toney (6-3, 241), Shareef Miller (6-5, 260) and Yetur Gross-Matos (6-5, 259) have combined for 13.0.

Penn State is third in tackles for loss with 59.0 (Toney, Miller and Gross-Matos have combined for 24.5).

Yes, Iowa’s defense is good at this stuff, too (not tackles for loss, that’s not what Iowa does on defense). I think we’re going to see the real value of pass rush (and it’ll have to be controlled) the rest of the season.

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5. Relevant numbers — Penn State has been below average on third-down conversions this season. Right now, it’s ninth in the Big Ten at 36.84.

Playing Ohio State will do this (the Buckeyes are still the most explosive offense in the conference and it’s not close), but the Lions are ninth in the league allowing 110 plays of 10-plus yards.

As far as getting explosive plays, PSU can run for it. The Lions are second to Nebraska in rushes of 10-plus yards at 56.

What’s Happening With The Hawkeyes?

1. Owning third down — Through quarterback Nate Stanley, the Hawkeyes have been one of the best third-down teams in the Big Ten this season.

The Hawkeyes are No. 2 in the league (behind Ohio State) with a 49.07 third-down conversion percentage (53 of 108). For comparison over 2017, the Hawkeyes finished eighth in the league with 34.4 (62 of 180).

So, if your general sense is that Iowa is better on third down this year, you are correct. The Hawkeyes have converted almost as many as 2017 and there are five games left.

Stanley has been money on third down this season, completing 45 of 66 for 715 yards, five TDs and one interception. His 181.2 passer rating on third down leads the Big Ten and is 11th nationally. His 34 third downs converted is third nationally.

Of course, Iowa’s offense leaning on Stanley probably makes you feel oogy. Like watching a skateboard video and waiting for the wipeout. So far, so good.

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2. The Penn State thing — You can make an argument that Kirk Ferentz built his Iowa career on victories over Michigan and Penn State. In his first six games against Penn State, Ferentz put up a 5-1 record. He was 8-2 in Iowa’s first 10 meetings against PSU with Ferentz as head coach.

That was Ferentz Iowa vs. Joe Paterno Penn State. Against Bill O’Brien/James Franklin Penn State, 0-3 and the series is now 4-0 PSU in the last four.

If Iowa is a serious contender for Indianapolis, you know the drill.

3. Exploding and defending the explosion — No, Penn State doesn’t have Saquon Barkley. He was the difference in the Lions’ 21-19 escape act last year at Kinnick Stadium.

Barkley put up five explosive runs and had a ridiculous 305 yards from scrimmage. That’s ridiculous. That was Barkley’s most productive night as a Nittany Lion.

Penn State can still explode. It is fourth in the league with 44 plays of 20-plus yards.

You hear defensive coordinator Phil Parker talk all of the time about defending against big plays. Iowa is really on that this year, leading the Big Ten with just 15 plays of 20-plus yards allowed (second in the country).

Yes, all of the “Iowa hasn’t played anyone” talk does hold some weight, even though Wisconsin and Iowa State are quality opponents. After this week, no one can really say that, but we’ll see if anyone still is talking about the Hawkeyes.

4. Points for the Hawkeyes — Iowa is now averaging 30.6 points a game. I am going over points a lot in this one. I think it’s pretty important against Penn State, which has shown it can spin the scoreboard. It put up 63 in back-to-back weeks (Kent State and Illinois) and still averages 42.6 points a game after playing Ohio State and Michigan State.

Iowa averages 30.6 points. That’s a significant marker for this program. When it averages more than 30 points a game in a season under Ferentz (2001, 2002, 2005, 2008 and 2015), the Hawkeyes are 46-18 with trips to the Orange Bowl, Outback Bowl and Rose Bowl in those seasons.

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5. Relevant numbers — File this under “holy bleep, the passage of time:” With one more win, Kirk Ferentz will become the fifth coach in conference history to win 150 games as a member of the Big Ten. The top five includes Woody Hayes (202), Amos Alonzo Stagg (199), Bo Schembechler (194), Joe Patero (162) and Ferentz (149).

Iowa is hard to score against. The Hawkeyes lead the Big Ten and are fifth in the nation with 14.1 points a game allowed.

Prediction

Iowa 23, Penn State 20

Iowa gets the stop it didn’t get against Penn State last year.

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

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