Iowa vs. Penn State, One of Anticipation

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“Here in Iowa City, the mood is like that which precedes a heavyweight championship fight.” Brent Musburger of CBS Sports narrated the scene back in 1985, the last time Iowa hosted a matchup of this caliber. Then, it was a battle of the top two teams in the land. On Saturday, Iowa City will be filled with similar emotions. The undefeated Hawkeyes and the undefeated Nittany Lions meet inside Kinnick Stadium for the country’s premier matchup of the weekend. Iowa enters ranked number three and is coming off of a dominating performance in College Park against Maryland. The Hawkeyes recorded seven total turnovers and dropped 51 points on the Terps’ eighth-ranked defense. Number four Penn State took care of business at home against Indiana, getting their revenge from last season’s controversial ending. They shut out the Hoosiers and are now locked in on their trip to Iowa City. Penn State and Iowa are not the typical Big Ten East and West front-runners, but they enter this week leading their respective divisions. Saturday’s late-afternoon kick will showcase the top two Big Ten Conference football teams with major Playoff implications. Iowa meets Penn State in one of great anticipation.

Remembering 1985

This weekend’s top five matchup is the biggest regular-season game of the Kirk Ferentz era, and perhaps since that 1985 season. In legendary head coach Hayden Fry’s seventh year at Iowa, the top-ranked Hawkeyes hosted the number two Michigan Wolverines in the game of the year. The aura surrounding Iowa City that weekend was mighty. Musburger’s opening monologue echoed through television sets around the country as Iowa took the field for their most prominent game in school history. This Saturday, Iowa City will captivate the eyes of millions around the country in a similar way as did that rainy, late-afternoon Hawkeye victory of 1985.

Penn State Offense

Elevated Passing Game

Penn State enters the sixth week of the season with quarterback Sean Clifford rising to his potential. Clifford showed inconsistencies over his last two seasons as the quarterback, but he has been putting the Nittany Lions in favorable positions so far this year. The quarterback has shown a steady rise in completion percentage and is taking better care of the football. Clifford is completing 67% of his passes this year with 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions. A notable stat from Clifford is his mitigation of turnover-worthy plays. Near the end of 2019 and for a good part of last season, Clifford was putting the ball in dangerous spots. Against Big Ten opponents from 2019 to late November of last season, 6.5% of his passes were considered “turnover-worthy” according to Pro Football Focus. Since last November, Clifford has only thrown two such passes. The quarterback has cleaned up his game in a lot of areas, but his ball protection has been the most important. This has allowed the Nittany Lions to excel in the passing game, and it has shown this year.

Last week against Indiana, he tossed three touchdowns with two to his favorite target Jahan Dotson. His most impressive game came against Auburn where he completed over 84% of his passes against a tough defense. In that game, he showcased himself as a consistent passer with the ability to keep plays alive with his feet. 

Dotson and Clifford etched their names into the Penn State record books last weekend with a 30-yard touchdown pass. That touchdown marked the 18th time the two have connected for a score. The chemistry between Dotson and Clifford is years in the making, and they’ve shown their ability to rely on each other in key situations. 

Sub-Par Run Game

Entering the season, Penn State had two stand-out running backs on their roster. Thus far, the Nittany Lions’ run game has been the less-impressive offensive unit. Noah Cain is the lead back and has 59 attempts to date. However, Cain has only produced 187 total yards for a mere 3.2 yards per attempt. Behind him is John Lovett, who with Cain, was also on the preseason Doak Walker Award Watch List. Similar to his counterpart, Lovett has underperformed to this point in the season. He has 95 yards on the year and has only played on 28 snaps. 

Penn State is a team that has run the ball on 43% of their snaps this season. However, their top two rushers have only managed 3.6 yards per attempt combined. The offense has been extremely productive through the air, but there is some imbalance with the Nittany Lions’ effectiveness on the ground. 

Penn State’s Success at Kinnick

Kinnick Stadium is widely known as one of the more difficult venues for a visiting team. Ohio State and Michigan are familiar with the scene. Penn State, on the other hand, has had success at Kinnick of late. In their last three trips to Iowa City, the Nittany Lions have been victorious. The last two meetings have come by a combined seven points, however. Iowa has played Penn State every year since 2016 and it has become somewhat of a new rivalry in the Big Ten. Iowa won big last season in State College, but this year the show comes to Kinnick. The Nittany Lions have a dynamic passing game, but the Hawkeye defense is elite this season. 

Hawks Points off Turnovers

Last week against Maryland, Iowa recorded six total interceptions by six different players as well as a fumble recovery. The Hawkeyes now have 12 interceptions and four fumble recoveries on the season. The key is that they are turning those takeaways into points. Iowa has scored 68 points off of turnovers this year which accounts for 41% of their total points. The defense has been giving Iowa incredible field position all season, and the offense capitalizes. This particular statistic is difficult to maintain, but the Hawks have been very consistent in forcing these turnovers. Since 2017, Iowa leads the FBS with 76 total interceptions which are averaging 15 per season – and it’s only October of this year. The Hawkeyes have consistently schemed a defense that forces pressure on quarterbacks. This pressure forces mistakes and gives their guys opportunities for interceptions. A high points-off-of-turnover statistic might seem like an unstable performance to rely on, but this Hawkeye team is different. They’ve shown over the course of nearly five years that they can take the ball away. It continues to pay dividends in terms of Iowa scoring points. 

Hawkeye Offense

Coupled with the success of the defense, Iowa’s offense took a major step forward last week. Putting up 51 points helped the eye test, but the play calling and run game really opened up. Tyler Goodson had a solid day on the ground and through the air, but Ivory Kelly-Martin had his best game of the year. With 7.8 yards per attempt, Kelly-Martin had two explosive run plays and 38 yards after contact. He had some trouble with handling the ball earlier in the season, but his performance last week was huge for the state of the run game. With a confident Kelly-Martin and an elusive Goodson, Iowa’s backfield will be looking to tire out Penn State’s run defense. 

Spencer Petras topped his performance against Colorado State by throwing for three touchdowns and rushing for two last week. He continued to elevate his quarterback play, specifically through the air. Penn State has the third-rated coverage defense in the country right behind Iowa according to Pro Football Focus. This Nittany Lion secondary will be Petras’ most difficult test of the season. The key for Iowa will be to continue to use the passing game to open up the run. In order for the Hawkeyes to have continued success on the ground, that will need to continue on Saturday.

Iowa Meets Penn State, One of Anticipation

Like it did in 1985, the attention of the college football world will turn to Iowa City on Saturday afternoon. This game between Iowa and Penn State is one of anticipation. Clifford and the Penn State offense will match up against one of the nation’s premier defensive units. Clifford has shown his ability to scramble and still deliver a good ball to his receivers. Against Dotson and the rest of the Nittany Lions, Iowa’s secondary will be tested through the air. Penn State’s run game has been deficient so far this season and Iowa has an opportunity to force them to be one-dimensional. If Iowa eliminates the run and forces the ball into the air, the nation’s leading interception defense will be on display. Playoff implications are at stake between Iowa and Penn State in a game of great anticipation.