7:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Penn State -12.5, Over/Under: 52.5
Conference Play kicks into high gear this weekend, as the Fourth-Ranked Penn State Nittany Lions face their first true test of the season as they travel to Kinnick Stadium to battle the Iowa Hawkeyes. After earning their first Big Ten Championship since 2008, Penn State (3-0, 0-0 in Big Ten) look to keep the momentum rolling into 2017, where after the first three weeks of play they appear to be the conference favorite moving forward. James Franklin’s charges have come a long way over the past three years, but finally look to be reloaded with the black cloud that was the Sandusky Scandal behind them. Indeed, Franklin has done an impressive job rebuilding the Program, so much so that the 45-year old was rewarded with a lucrative six-year contract extension worth $5.738 Million per year back in August, on the heels of an 11-3 campaign, the Nittany Lions’ first 11-win term since 2009. The Offense has been explosive, led by a pair of Heisman candidates, Quarterback Trace McSorley and Tailback Saquon Barkley. The dynamic duo burst onto the scene last year, serving as the driving force behind the team’s sensational second half of the season, with both players showcasing rare home run ability whenever the ball is in their hands. In his second term as the Starter, McSorely has really ironed out the wrinkles in his game, improving his Completion Percentage dramatically from 57.9% a year ago to 67.1% thus far, while averaging 251.0 Yards per Game (9.9 Y/A), with nine Touchdowns and a pair of Interceptions, while rushing for another two scores to boot. Barkley, on the other hand, has NFL Star written all over, exhibiting a versatility that will make him a ton of money in the near future; the Junior racked up a whopping 1,899 Total Yards from Scrimmage and twenty-two Touchdowns in 2016 on his way to earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors, and appears to be on the path to that achievement once again, totaling 548 Yards and five scores throughout the first three outings. Both of these guys enjoyed huge performances in last year’s 41-14 rout of Iowa in Happy Valley, as Penn State hung 599 Total Yards of Offense on the visiting Hawkeyes, including a staggering 359 Rushing Yards on fifty-two Carries. McSorely didn’t have to throw the ball much, but when he connected it was magic, completing 11-of-18 Attempts for 240 Yards, and two touchdowns, while getting in on the rushing parade with forty Yards and another score. For his troubles, Barkley trampled the visiting side with 167 Yards and a Touchdown on just twenty carries, while catching a pass from McSorely and taking it forty-four Yards to pay-dirt. With that said, Franklin’s Defense should not be overlooked in the shadow of their teammates’ exploits, for this unit has quietly been one of the best in the conference thus far; the Nittany Lions are allowing 4.7 Points per Game (2nd Overall) on 273.7 Total Yards, including 147.7 through the air and another 126.0 on the ground, while coming up with nine Turnovers (eight Interceptions) and eleven Sacks. Iowa found out the hard way that these kids mean business, for they were relegated to just 234 Total Yards, including thirty via the run on twenty-six Carries, and fourteen First Downs. Senior Safety Marcus Allen sets the tone for this group, leading them with eighteen Tackles (1.5 for loss), an Interception and a Pass Deflection. Turnovers will be the x-factor tonight, for if the Defense can get their comrades the ball back on a short field, then it could be a very long night for the Hawkeyes. Penn State snatched three Interceptions in last weekend’s shutout of Georgia State (56-0), and had two in the previous week against Pittsburgh (33-14).
Meanwhile, Iowa (3-0, 0-0 in Big Ten) too has churned through their nonconference schedule unblemished, albeit without anything remotely close to the fanfare that their opponent tonight has attracted. Then again, that has been the Hawkeyes’ story under the steady hand of Kirk Ferentz, who is now in his nineteenth year in Iowa City. The four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year and two-time National Coach of the Year (2002 and 2015) has gone 138-92 (.600) over the course of his successful career, leading the Program to fourteen Bowl Games, despite owning a five-game losing streak in such contests, with his last win coming back in 2010. Five times the Hawkeyes have won at least ten games under his watch, though they’ve only finished in the Top-25 of the AP Polls once in the last eight years. It’s enough to make one wonder if the decorated veteran isn’t close to calling it a career, but that’s a topic of discussion for another day, for payback is in all likelihood the only thing on the collective minds of his charges heading into tonight’s meeting with the Nittany Lions. As we covered earlier, Iowa was embarrassed in their trip to Happy Valley last year, and hasn’t beaten Penn State since 2010. The last time that these teams met at Kinnick stadium, the hosts were once again embarrassed, allowing the visitors to score thirty-eight unanswered points before finally registering fourteen points of their own in garbage time. The debacle was eerily similar to last year’s, for the Hawkeyes simply couldn’t stop their opponent’s big play Offense, getting torched for 504 Total Yards and twenty-eight First Downs. As we also mentioned earlier, the only way that this team is going to be able to keep pace with their more heralded Big Ten brethren is if they don’t give them extra opportunities by turning the ball over. Of course, that’s been a bit of problem for Ferentz’s lads, who have committed six Turnovers in the first three games, opposed to forcing five themselves. In order to pull the upset, Iowa is going to have control the tempo of play with their running game, behind a perennially stout Offensive Line, which is the strength of this team. In the Backfield there are a number of talented Tailbacks to be called upon, though Ferentz is going to have to be cautious after seeing his numbers dwindle of late; Leading Rusher Akrum Wadley (410 Total YDS, 2 TD) will essentially be on a pitch count after leaving last week’s 31-14 victory over North Texas prematurely with a leg injury, while fellow Tailback James Butler (184 Total YDS) is lost until mid-October after injuring his elbow in the same contest. Fortunately, there are other options in the form of Toren Young (78 YDS) and Ivory Kelly-Martin (74 YDS), with the latter proving to be particularly explosive in limited touches, averaging 6.7 Yards per Carry with a pair of Touchdowns to his name. And then there is Nathan Stanley, who in his first year as the Starting Quarterback has proven to be very efficient in a Game Manager role. Through three games, the Sophomore has completed 61.4% of his Passes for an average of 218.3 Yards (7.9 Y/A), and most importantly ten Touchdowns and just one Interception. The youngster had the game of his life in Iowa’s 44-41 Overtime victory over bitter rival Iowa State, torching the Cyclones for 333 Passing Yards and five Touchdowns, including both the 46-Yard score to Wadley that sent the game to Overtime, and the 5-Yard pass to Ihmir Smith-Marsette that won it in the extra period.