For those around the country waiting for No. 4 Penn State to face it’s first true test of the season, they might get their wish when the Nittany Lions travel to Iowa City to open up Big Ten play against the Hawkeyes Saturday night for a 7:30 kickoff on ABC.
The Hawkeyes are looking to avenge a 41-14 beatdown they took at the hands of Penn State a year ago, and will try to upset a top-five Penn State team under the lights at Kinnick Stadium for the second time in 10 years.
For Penn State the objective is simple: keep winning. Though much of the national talk is of how the Nittany Lions haven’t been tested yet like other top-four teams like Alabama, Clemson and Oklahoma have, the Lions are comfortable playing a game every week and trying to go undefeated every week and the rest will sort itself out. Though they won’t say it right now, they know full well that Michigan and Ohio State lurk later on.
This week Penn State will be on the road in a tough environment against a Big Ten rival with plenty at stake. As we saw last season with a non-conference loss to Pitt, there’s not a lot of wiggle room as far as ending up in the College Football Playoff so a loss, especially to an unranked team, isn’t idea. With Iowa spoiling Penn State title hopes in the past, expect the Lions to be extra focused to avoid having history repeat itself.
The 2017 version of the Hawkeyes looks much like Kirk Ferentz’ teams of the past, they play the run very tough on defense and have held opponents to 19.3 points per game. What’s different is that they’re scoring at a much higher clip (33 point per game) -at least early on- than they did in 2016 (24.9 points per). As we’ve seen with the high-powered Penn State offense, opposing teams need all the scoring they can get.
In that 2008 matchup Iowa held Penn State’s offense to just 289 total yards in their 24-23 win, and the formula will be the same in this one if the Hawkeyes want to pull the upset. While there wasn’t a player of Saquon Barkley’s caliber on the field for Penn State in that game, you can bet he’ll be a factor in this one.
Iowa’s defense vs. Saquon Barkley
Sometimes the matchup is Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley trying to beat a loaded up box through the air, but this one is all about if the Hawkeyes can slow down or stop No. 26 in white. Even when holes haven’t there for Barkley he has simply burned team through the air, hauling in 11 catches for 241 yards and two touchdowns so far.
If Iowa can keep Barkley from the end zone they’ll greatly improve their chances at the upset, but stopping him doesn’t necessarily mean that another Lion won’t go off, but it does help a ton.
Time of possession battle
We saw Pitt suck the air out of the football and leave Penn State’s big-time offense on the sidelines but the Panthers didn’t score enough to make it count. They also couldn’t stop the Penn State offense anytime they had the ball anyways, but Iowa has better play at quarterback and has the playmakers on offense to make possessions count with touchdowns and not field goals.
The Hawkeyes are going to want to control the clock to limit the chances Penn State’s offense to score if they have any shot and that is going to start with Nathan Stanley, Akrum Wadley and Co. to keep the chains moving.
Key players to watch
Penn State LB Jason Cabinda
The senior has had a quiet start to the season to no fault of his own. The linebacker has been his usual self, but has seen the spotlight shine bright on members of the secondary and defensive line early on. Cabinda will be tasked with shutting down Wadley and Iowa’s ground game, and though safety Marcus Allen is usually down in the box with Cabinda, it’s the linebacker who makes calls and shifts to the front seven.
Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
The matchup nightmare will continue to be one this week against a defense that has a solid linebacking group but nobody who can mark Gesicki down the field. If the 6-foot-6 tight end draws a safety instead he’ll use his size to create big plays in the passing game. The guy is unstoppable.
Iowa QB Nathan Stanley
Don’t expect Iowa to find much on the ground, because Penn State will load up on Wadley and James Butler, but Stanley is an accurate passer who could find some plays through the air. He’s also highlighted because he’ll likely need to keep the chains moving on some longer yardage plays to help try and keep the Penn State offense off the field as much as possible.
Prediction: Penn State 34 Iowa 21
This should be a pretty entertaining game for a bit, but Penn State just has too many playmakers on offense to not come away with a win. That 2008 Penn State team didn’t have anything like the 2017 team has, and Saquon Barkley on that fast turf will prove to be a nightmare for upset-minded Iowa.