Iowa Football

Iowa football at Penn State breakdown: Pregame analysis, prediction

Penn State hosts Iowa in Big Ten football this week at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (The Gazette)
Penn State hosts Iowa in Big Ten football this week at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (The Gazette)

A closer look at Saturday afternoon’s Big Ten Conference football game between Iowa (2-2) and Penn State (0-4) at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa. (2:30 p.m., BTN).

Iowa offense

Iowa has climbed to fourth in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 31 points per game. The Hawkeyes have been good, good, good on the ground, rushing for 226 yards two weeks ago in a 49-7 blowout of Michigan State and 235 last week in a 35-7 win at Minnesota.

Running back Tyler Goodson had a career-high 142 yards against Minnesota on 20 carries, scoring a pair of touchdowns and adding a two-point conversion. Mekhi Sargent added 86 yards and a TD on just nine carries. Goodson ranks third in the Big Ten with his 93.8-yard per-game average.

The offensive line combination of Alaric Jackson, Cole Banwart, Tyler Linderbaum, Cody Ince and Mark Kallenberger has been good the last two weeks, but also don’t underestimate the blocking of tight ends Sam LaPorta and Shaun Beyer, as well as the receivers on the outside zone stretch play.

Quarterback Spencer Petras continues to feel his way through his first season as a starter. He threw an interception last week and has four this season. His passer efficiency rating of 102.7 ranks 12th in the conference.

You figure Iowa will be able to move the ball against what has been a porous Penn State defense, but limiting turnovers for the Hawkeyes will be critical. That’s what helped cost them their first two games this season.

Iowa defense

Definitely an improving unit.

Iowa’s defense ranks second in the Big Ten in fewest passing yards allowed per game (201.5) and third in total defense (314.3) and scoring defense (14.8). Its per carry average of 2.8 yards leads the conference.

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It also produced two interceptions last week against Minnesota (one by Jack Koerner, one by Riley Moss), making that 11 consecutive games with at least one pick.

Tackle Daviyon Nixon is second in the league in tackles per loss. End Zach VanValkenburg was Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week after a three-sack game.

And this unit is getting healthy. Jack Campbell played for the first time this season last week, giving Iowa two very capable middle linebackers. Seth Benson is the other.

Tackle Austin Schulte also returned last week, getting snaps for the first time this season. He was an anticipated starter at the beginning of the season.

Kaevon Merriweather has settled into the strong safety position very nicely, starting the last three games. Moss and Matt Hankins have played well at cornerback.

By the way, Hankins will join Chauncey Golston, Keith Duncan, Tyler Linderbaum, Nick Niemann and Mekhi Sargent as a game captain this week. Captains are voted on weekly by the players and coaching staff.

Penn State offense

The Nittany Lions rank third in the Big Ten in total offense (437 yards per game). They had over 500 last week against Nebraska, yet lost, 30-23, unable to score the tying touchdown despite driving inside the Cornhuskers 15 twice in the fourth quarter.

Junior quarterback Sean Clifford threw for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns last season but has thrown six interceptions in four games this season and was pulled against Nebraska in favor of redshirt sophomore Will Levis. Clifford has been listed by Penn State as the starter this week, though Iowa will prepare for both.

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By the way, Ferentz said Iowa was the first Power Five school to offer a scholarship to Levis, a Connecticut native.

“He was interested and enamored until Penn State offered him. That was the end of that relationship; and I say that jokingly. He’s a first-class young man and that was a delight to get to know a little bit,” Ferentz said. “We have very high regard for him back before his senior year in high school, so it comes as no surprise to us that he’s a good player and Clifford is a good football player, too. I don’t know if they have made an announcement who is going to start. We fully expect Clifford to start.”

Pat Freiermuth holds the PSU record for most career TD catches by a tight end and will be someone Iowa’s defense must account for. Same for wide receiver Jahan Dotson, who leads Penn State with 23 catches for 588 yards and five touchdowns. Parker Washington (19 catches, five TDs) has made a significant impact as a true freshman.

PSU lost a pair of running backs to injury, including one (Journey Brown) who had to quit football due to a medical condition. Devyn Ford has been the primary ball carrier, though Clifford and Levis are both dual-threat QBs.

Penn State defense

This unit has been uncharacteristcally bad, which is a big reason for the 0-4 start.

Penn State is allowing 34.8 points per game, which ranks 12th in the Big Ten, behind only Maryland (35.3) and Minnesota (35.8). Teams have been able to run on the Nittany Lions to the tune of essentially 130 yards per game.

PSU has been especially poor in first halves of games. That’s actually true on both sides of the football.

An aggressive, blitzy approach will test Iowa’s offensive line.

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“We’ve got to tackle better and we’ve got to be able to adjust faster,” said Penn State Coach James Franklin said. “We’ve got to find a way to play better in opening drives, we’ve got to protect the ball on offense and we’ve got to play our brand that we’ve been playing in second halves early in games.”

Final thoughts

Penn State has beaten Iowa six consecutive games. Iowa’s last win over the Nittany Lions was in 2010.

PSU began this season ranked seventh nationally but lost by a point in overtine to Indiana in the opener, on a Hoosiers two-point conversion. Ohio State whacked them in the second game, Penn State laid a big-time egg in a 35-19 home loss to Maryland two weeks ago, then got behind Nebraska last week, 21-0, unable to complete a comeback.

Iowa, meanwhile, has responded splendidly from a four-point loss to Purdue in the opener and a one-point defeat to Northwestern in Week 2. It is playing high-quality football.

The difference here will be Iowa’s ability to score points on a bad Penn State defense and the Hawkeye defense getting enough stops.

Prediction — Iowa 31, Penn State 21

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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