Iowa Football

No. 10 Penn State at No. 17 Iowa: The Big Analysis

Penn State head coach James Franklin seems to have the Hawkeyes' number

No. 17 Iowa hosts No. 10 Penn State this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)
No. 17 Iowa hosts No. 10 Penn State this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (The Gazette)

When teams lose for the first time, the flag they fly is “All of our goals are still on the table.”

Yes, the No. 17 Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) scored just three points, allowed eight sacks and rushed for 1 yard (officially) last week at Michigan. Maybe you’re not ready to hear “All of our goals are still on the table,” but, nonetheless, it’s true.

Now, No. 10 Penn State (5-0, 2-0) comes to Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes have dropped five consecutive to the Nittany Lions, including three against head coach James Franklin.

Along with Penn State, the Hawkeyes have to keep an eye on Wisconsin (5-0, 2-0). The Badgers are currently stealing everyone’s Halloween candy. Just ask Michigan. The Badgers do have Michigan State and Ohio State on the schedule, but a two-game deficit in the Big Ten standings would feel like a lot.

They are Penn State

1. Earning it — Franklin had quarterback Tommy Stevens in his pocket. Stevens was the backup to yardage machine Trace McSorley. Stevens wanted to be assured the position going into his senior year. Franklin wasn’t on that wavelength and now we’re seeing why.

Sean Clifford is “Yardage Machine II.” The 6-2, 216-pound sophomore leads the Big Ten in total offense (328.6 yards per game; 9.2 yards per play). He’s a threat as a runner, averaging 4.6 yards on 43 carries. He will create extra gaps for Iowa’s front seven to be wary of.

 

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2. The running back names — Journey Brown, Noah Cain, Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade. Are they Penn State running backs or a ’70s guitar-rock band? So far this season, Brown, a Rivals 3-star with a smattering of offers, has emerged as the leader so far. The 5-11, 206-pounder averages 7.0 yards on 31 carries. That’s sixth in the Big Ten, with Ford at No. 2 with 7.6 yards a carry. Cain, 5-10, 206 and an IMG Academy grad, fits more into the “between the tackles” role.

3. Sack attack — Yetur Gross-Matos (6-5, 264) is fourth in the Big Ten with 5.5 sacks. He picked up two against the Hawkeyes last season. Gross-Matos is a name you will hear this season at the NFL combine. He has combine speed and strength. The Lions also will use him inside on passing downs. This goes for the Lions’ D-line and the entire defense: You will see a lot of rotation. PSU lists a three-deep on defense and, so far this season, hasn’t hesitated to keep rotating no matter the score. Yes, the Lions have been pushed in just one game (a 17-10 win over Pitt), but rotations stood in that one.

 

4. Secondary spotlight — Penn State has put 10 defensive backs in the NFL, via draft or free agent signing, since 2015. After last season, Amani Oruwariye and Nick Scott left for the NFL, so there is some newness. Penn State picked off 13 passes last season and has four so far this year. Pitt head coach Pat Narduzzi went at PSU’s secondary. The Panthers threw 51 times, completed 68 percent and went for 372 yards. Key stat: The Lions didn’t give up any TDs.

5. Relevant numbers — Clifford leads the Big Ten with 288.6 passing yards per game. He’s No. 2 in the conference in yards per attempt (10.7) and he has 12 TD passes to just two interceptions. Franklin and staff made the call, and Clifford is doing everything he can to make them look smart. All that and he can extend plays.

This is Iowa

1. Escape route — Quarterback Nate Stanley’s pocket management was tested last week. Later in the game, Michigan started showing a lot of blitz looks and defenders moved late in the presnap process. That caused a lot of problems. Stanley said he’s not the most athletic quarterback, especially compared to the Kyler Murray models, and he did explain the backpedal move. He does that to buy himself some time. Also, the idea is to duck the blindside rush with a step back and a reverse move. When he backpedals, he’s doing everything he can to buy himself some time.

Also, Stanley talked about getting rid of the ball sooner and knowing when it’s time for a throwaway. There was one sack that should’ve been a throwaway. The four throwaways vs. the Wolverines was a season high.

2. Time for Tyler — The hardest part about football is finding out what you don’t know on the field. This week, Iowa players talked about the difficulty of dealing with Michigan’s team speed on defense and how the scout team shows “looks” and not “real-life speed.” You can probably transfer that over to head coach Kirk Ferentz and his thoughts on freshman running backs. OK, check that and change it to “what once were his thoughts on freshman running backs.”

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The depth chart is a sleepy topic, but true freshman Tyler Goodson was elevated to No. 3 on the depth chart this week. Ferentz doubled down on that this week, saying Goodson and juniors Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young are the top three and will see the bulk of the work.

Goodson showed mettle and speed at Michigan. He posted 77 yards from scrimmage (15 rushing, 62 receiving) to pace the Hawkeyes. A trio is the way to go here, but Goodson made a statement. Where does he stand among Ferentz-era freshman RBs? Goodson has 217 rushing and 83 receiving yards this season. In 2008, Jewel Hampton finished the season with 463 rushing yards and no receiving yards. In 2009, Brandon Wegher rushed for 641 yards and had 112 receiving yards.

» Read more: Iowa's running game will be a theme for the rest of the season

3. Easy on the snap-count alarm — Even after last week’s offensive struggles, the Hawkeyes are No. 2 in the country in time of possession, the ultimate stat for a team that values complementary football like Iowa does. That number radiates even in a loss. Defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston did play all 60 snaps against Michigan and also went the distance against Iowa State (55).

That does sound like a lot, but it’s really not. The Hawkeyes’ defense is No. 2 in the country in fewest snaps played (265). It’s cold comfort following the result vs. Michigan, but the fewer snaps the Hawkeyes face, the more you see Epenesa and Golston. That allows Iowa to play its best players.

4. Health watch — Defensive tackle Brady Reiff (knee) and cornerback Matt Hankins (hamstring) should return this week. Both have been out since week 2, so it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. In their absence, Iowa did sprout some depth, particularly cornerback D.J. Johnson. He was beaten for an explosive play last week, but the redshirt freshman has improved every week and it’s hard to see an Iowa cornerback depth chart without him on it from here on out. Iowa did miss Reiff’s maturity. A fifth-year body makes D-lines better.

5. Relevant numbers — According to ESPN, linebackers Nick Niemann and Djimon Colbert have combined to allow a 68.4% completion rate in slot coverage this season. So yeah, Iowa does miss the 4-2-5 cash and Amani Hooker, the Big Ten defensive back of the year who owned the position and left a year early for the NFL.

Prediction

Penn State 27, Iowa 24

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It’s hard to see the offense rebounding from last week. No, Penn State hasn’t played anyone, but Franklin seems to have Iowa’s number.

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

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