“Echoes are not exclusive to sounds.” The words of Brent Musburger are remembered as he narrated the scene in Happy Valley 14 seasons ago. The Hawkeyes were entering a whiteout inside Beaver Stadium, riding the reverberations of the previous season’s walk-off upset over third-ranked Penn State at home. This season, the echoes are again in the ears of the Nittany Lions. Iowa’s head-to-head victory in 2021 rings loud in State College as they host Iowa in their annual whiteout once again. This time, Brad Nessler will illustrate the top 25 matchup in primetime on CBS.
The game features two of the nation’s best defenses just as it did in that 2009 meeting. Then, Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi wore number 12 and stood next to two true freshmen running backs in Adam Robinson and Brandon Wegher. This year’s Hawkeye offense features a quarterback with the number 12, as well as a young running back room that will likely trot out a couple of true freshmen. The resemblance might not mean anything on the field, but it brings all the more significance to this Saturday’s ranked battle.
Iowa’s Offense Outlook
Iowa found success in the second half against Western Michigan by feeding the ball to their running backs. Leshon Williams highlighted the day with 145 yards and true freshman Kamari Moulton had two touchdowns. On Saturday, it is going to be difficult to run the ball on Penn State’s defense. They are giving up less than 100 yards per game on the ground, averaging 3.1 yards per rush. Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson are both not expected to play due to injury. That will give Williams a chance to perform in primetime, along with the freshmen Moulton and Terrell Washington Jr.
The Hawkeye pass game was unable to find rhythm last week, and the explosive plays have been lacking since week one. It’s unlikely that they will figure it out in the conditions expected on Saturday. However, Cade McNamara has played, and won, in this environment before. During the 2021 season, McNamara threw for three touchdowns and 217 yards en route to a four-point victory over Penn State. He connected with Erick All in that game for the deciding touchdown. Stepping into a whiteout with a veteran quarterback can make a big difference, and Iowa will have that in McNamara. Expect Iowa to be conservative in the passing game and work some high-percentage pass plays early. This will help establish some rhythm and help with the run game.
Penn State’s Vertical Threat
We’ve talked about Iowa’s struggles when it comes to defending a vertical pass threat. Specifically when it’s one guy who can make a difference. Since 2019, Iowa has faced six teams with elite-level receivers that were able to exploit the secondary. In 2019 it was Tyler Johnson of Minnesota and Amon-Ra St. Brown of USC. Together, they combined for 18 receptions, 333 yards, and a touchdown. In 2020, Jahan Dotson of Penn State had 139 yards and a touchdown. All three of those games were wins. During the 2021 season, Iowa faced David Bell of Purdue and Wan’Dale Robinson of Kentucky. They combined for 21 receptions, 410 yards, and two scores. Last season at Ohio State, Julian Fleming had 105 yards on just two catches with a touchdown. Those three resulted in losses.
On Saturday, Penn State wide receiver Keandre Lambert-Smith will pose a similar threat. He was quiet against Illinois’ solid defense, but on the season he has a 74.4 receiver grade. Lambert-Smith is averaging nearly 10 yards after the catch per reception. Both of his two touchdowns have come on passes of 20-plus yards. On passes of more than 10 yards, he has five catches for 149 yards. He has emerged as a true deep threat for the Nittany Lions.
Penn State’s leading receiver lines up mostly out wide, but has been in the slot on 27% of plays this year. Keep an eye on coverage mismatches if Lambert-Smith lines up in the slot on Saturday. Iowa has struggled to defend slot receivers this year when their linebackers are in coverage. It could be an area for Penn State to attack and gain an advantage offensively. It also adds to the importance of the battle that will take place in the trenches.
In The Trenches: Pass Rush
In the preseason, the Penn State offensive line was slated to be one of the best in the nation. While it does feature a likely first-rounder in left tackle Olu Fashanu, the rest of the line hasn’t quite lived up to the billing. As a pass-blocking unit, Fashanu leads the way with an 87.1 grade according to Pro Football Focus. The other tackles in Caedan Wallace and Drew Shelton have a 64.4 and 41.1 grade, respectively. They have combined for five quarterback pressures allowed on the season. Wallace gave up three of those against FCS Delaware.
Quarterback pressure for the Iowa defensive front is going to be critical on Saturday against Penn State. As a pass-rushing defense, the Hawkeye front has been solid thus far. By himself, Joe Evans has 12 quarterback pressures and four quarterback hits. He’s also had a 17.1% win percentage against offensive lines on the season. On 86 pass rush attempts, Evans has beaten his blocker nearly 15 times. That’s fourth in the conference for defensive linemen with more than 70 pass rush attempts this year. Deontae Craig and Ethan Hurkett have been the other two rotating at the edge. They currently combine for seven quarterback pressures on the season.
Iowa needs to make quarterback Drew Allar uncomfortable. Big-play receivers have been difficult in years past for Iowa. Forcing Allar to make a decision early in his reads is pivotal in limiting the downfield threat with Lambert-Smith. Disrupting the passing game can make a difference on Saturday.
In The Trenches: Run Defense
As far as run blocking and interior offensive line, the Nittany Lions have rotated three guards and two centers this year. Their best run blocker is center Hunter Nourzad, with a grade of 70.1. A grade of 60 is considered average among all of college football, and this interior line averages a 63.4 grade. They have been playing just above average as a whole on the year against West Virginia, Delaware, and Illinois. Interestingly, Fashanu has been the worst run-blocking lineman for Penn State this year with a 52.7 grade according to Pro Football Focus.
This will be an area for Iowa to exploit against Penn State. The Hawkeye defensive front is the best position room on the team at this point in the season. On run plays against, Yahya Black and Logan Lee have combined for 12 tackles and seven stops this year. A stop is defined as a tackle that constitutes a failure in the run game. Their average depth of tackle has been 2.65 yards. For comparison’s sake, Black and Lee both have a run defense grade of over 74. Statistically, the Iowa defensive line has been more efficient in run defense than Penn State has been in run blocking.
Iowa’s Path to Victory vs. Penn State, Prediction
It’s tough to see a scenario in which the Iowa offense drives a victory at Penn State. They’ve been an improvement from last season, but still have to work on the passing game. With what Penn State presents defensively, especially in their secondary, it’s not likely they work out any of those kinks in this contest. Rather, Iowa has a path to victory with how they play at the line of scrimmage defensively, their ability to force turnovers, and winning the field position game. A victory will likely be in low-scoring, traditional Iowa fashion, but this recipe has worked in years past.
Phil Parker’s defensive front has a slight edge over the Nittany Lion offensive line. Iowa has to take advantage of this and push the line backward to make Allar and company work quickly. This will translate to errant throws on which the Hawkeye defensive backs make their living. If the pass rush can do this, it can force the Penn State offense to be one-dimensional. In that case, Iowa has an opportunity to be successful on defense. The interior defensive line can play to that advantage with linebackers getting up in run fits to win the battle on the ground.
Of course, winning the turnover battle will also be important. In the last three meetings, the team that won the turnover battle won the game. An interception in plus territory or a special teams play that flips the field can make all the difference. In the 2009 whiteout in rainy conditions, Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn blocked a punt and took it back for six points early in the fourth quarter. Saturday’s whiteout has rain in the forecast, and turnovers will likely be the difference in the game.
Penn State – 20
Iowa – 13
Photo courtesy: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports