4:00 PM EST, FOX – Line: Iowa -2.5, Over/Under: 41.5
In a weekend full of battles pitting ranked opponents against each other, it’s a Top-5 showdown in Iowa City that stands chief among them, as the (No. 4) Penn State Nittany Lions battle the surging (No. 3) Iowa Hawkeyes as a pair of unbeatens step into the proverbial ring that is Kinnick Stadium. After the utter disappointment that was the 2020 campaign it’s difficult imagining a more ideal beginning to it’s successor for Penn State (5-0, 2-0 in BIG Ten), who are off to their third 5-0 start under (Head Coach) James Franklin, which is significant for the fact that that mark is in perfect asymmetry with that of the previous season. You see, the Nittany Lions began 2020 a miserable 0-5 for the first time in the school’s long and storied history, with a wealth of issues at the heart of their struggles; a rash of injuries, an abysmal turnover differential (Minus-7) that ranked 112th nationally, an absolutely crucial opt-out (ahem, Micah Parsons), and a new Offensive Coordinator that never quite caught on with his personnel (Kirk Ciarocca), were all factors in their stumbling out of the gate. With that said, Franklin’s charges nonetheless managed to right the ship, winning each of their final four games down the stretch in rather convincing fashion by a margin of SEVENTY-SIX points, and it appears that they’ve carried over that momentum into the current campaign, where they count themselves among one of the many rebuilt contenders within the BIG Ten. Despite finishing second in the league in Total Offense last year (430.3), Franklin deemed it necessary to move on from Ciarooca and in turn pulled a major coup in the hiring of Mike Yurcich, who was let go during the latest changing of the guard at Texas. One of the more creative playcallers in the country, Yurcich seems to fit in line with Franklin far more than his predecessor ever did, and with the talent on hand has seen to it that this unit can beat you through the air or on the ground; PSU has averaged 418.4 total yards on a healthy 6.2 yards per play, though they’ve largely skewed towards passing the football, racking up a prolific 286.0 yards on 67.3% passing. (Redshirt Junior Quarterback) Sean Clifford (67.3%, 1,336 YDS, 8.7 Y/A, 11 TD, 3 INT) appears to have bounced back from the disappointment of 2020, in which he was responsible for nine of his team’s seventeen turnovers; he’s completed an efficient 67.3% of his passes for 1,336 yards on 8.7 yards per attempt, with eleven touchdowns in comparison to three interceptions, highlighted by arguably the finest showing of his career against (No. 22) Auburn, deftly completing 28-of-32 passes for 280 yards, a pair of scores and a pick. Clifford and (fellow Junior) Jahan Dotson (35 REC, 446 YDS, 12.7 Y/R, 6 TD) have evolved into one of the most prolific combinations in the country, with the latter reeling in thirty-five receptions for 446 yards and a BIG Ten-best six touchdowns through five games. In their latest outing, a 24-0 shutout of Indiana, the tandem accounted for two touchdowns, including a 30-yard strike late in the third quarter to put the affair further out of reach. With all that said, the biggest proponent of Penn State’s undefeated start has been the play of their Defense, which has been nothing short of dominant thus far. Coming into the campaign, there were questions in regards to the Defensive Line, which returned just one starter from 2020, though any concerns over their experience and depth within the trenches have been quelled as they have relegated the opposition to a scant 12.0 points per game (3rd in FBS) on 313.4 total yards, including 202.6 yards against the pass on 57.7% passing and another 110.8 yards on the ground on 3.2 yards per carry. Ironically, a pair of transfers from Duke and Temple have added some much-needed muscle to the defensive front, with Derrick Tangelo (9 TKL, 1.5 TFL, 1 FR) and Arnold Ebiketie (22 TKL, 5.5 TFL, 3.0 SK) combining for seven tackles for loss, three sacks, and a recovered fumble. This unit has also been plenty opportunistic, forcing NINE turnovers thus far, seven of which being interceptions; (Junior Safety) Ji’Ayir Brown (14 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 3 INT, 3 PD) leads the unit with three picks, while (Senior Cornerback) Tariq Castro-Fields (13 TKL, 4 PD) has defended four passes. They’ll need to be at their best as they face Iowa, who is ironically the last team to beat them; when these teams met last year in Happy Valley, the hosts were absolutely THROTTLED in a 41-21 loss in which the Offense experienced a meltdown with FOUR turnovers, two of them charged to Clifford, including an interception returned seventy-one yards for a touchdown in the final period of play. That defeat snapped a four-game winning streak over the Hawkeyes under Franklin’s watch, which includes a pair of narrow victories at Kinnick Stadium; when they last traveled to Iowa City in 2019, PSU pulled away late on the strength of two takeaways, while the aforementioned Clifford managed the game in his sixth start with 117 yards and a touchdown on 12-of-24 passing. Today’s contest will be the Lions’ first true road game since besting (No.12) Wisconsin (16-10) in the Season Opener, and if they manage to leave Kinnick victorious then they’ll have won their tenth consecutive game dating back to last season, their longest since Franklin arrived back in 2014.
Meanwhile, speaking of lengthy winning streaks dating back to last season, Iowa (5-0, 2-0 in BIG Ten) have been on a heater for quite some time now, winning eleven consecutive games going back to 2020. While last year wasn’t as calamitous for the Hawkeyes as it was for their counterpart, it was still filled with pitfalls. Coming into the campaign, (Head Coach) Kirk Ferentz was already on the defensive as number of former players accused the program of racial discrimination, which eventually led to the dismissal of (longtime Strength and Conditioning Coach) Chris Doyle shortly after the news became public. Then once the campaign finally got started after being delayed by the pandemic, the team lost it’s first two games on the schedule in narrow fashion (by a combined SEVEN points), which marked the first time that they done so under Ferentz since the turn of the century. However, Iowa would right the ship quickly, winning their final six games down the stretch with all but one of those contests decided by fewer than fourteen points, including that aforementioned 20-point demolition of Penn State in Happy Valley. Anyone questions of the 66-year old retiring have also been swept under the rug, at least for now, for the longest-tenured coach in the country has the proverbial football factory in Iowa City firing on all cylinders, as Iowa is enjoying their highest ranking in the polls since 2015, which coincidentally saw them finish with a school record twelve victories. So how are the Hawkeyes doing this, you ask? Well, in his over two decades stalking the sidelines at Kinnick Stadium, Ferentz has developed this program into one of the best developmental programs in the country, proving time and again that they’re able to transition seamlessly from class to another, regardless of position, which is especially poignant this season after the school was hit harder than usual by a cocktail of graduation and early declarations. For example, the Receiving Corps is completely new, while the Offensive Line, which has been their hallmark for years now returned only one of their starting quintet, and not to mention the Defensive Line, which lost a pair of All-BIG Ten First-Teamers. If the first five games have taught us anything, it’s that that last concern is indeed much ado about nothing, for the Defense has been absolutely DOMINANT in 20201; Iowa has yielded just 11.6 points per game (2nd in FBS) on a scant 271.4 total yards, including 184.4 yards through the air on only 54.8% passing and another 87.0 on the ground on a mere 2.7 yards per carry. Defensive Linemen, Lukas Van Ness (12 TKL, 4.5 TFL, 4.0 SK, 1 PD), John Waggoner (10 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 2.0 SK, 3 PD), and Joe Evans (11 TKL, 3.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 1 PD) have been nightmares for opposing Quarterbacks and ball-carriers in combining for eleven tackles for loss, nine sacks, and five passes defended, while (Defensive Backs) Riley Moss (22 TKL, 2.0 TFL, 1 FR, 3 INT, 3 PD, 2 TD), Matt Hankins (15 TKL, 1.0 TFL, 2 INT, 1 PD), and Dane Belton (16 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 2 INT, 2 PD) have been bonafide ballhawks. And this is where (Defensive Coordinator) Phil Parker’s troops have really earned their money, for no team in the nation has forced more turnovers than the Hawkeyes with an insane SIXTEEN through five games. Think about that for a moment, folks; these kids are AVERAGING 3.2 takeaways per game. Ten different players have logged a takeaway, with the Defense even returning three of them for touchdowns, two of which came courtesy of the aforementioned Moss in the Season Opener, a 34-6 drubbing of Indiana. Last Friday night’s 51-14 blowout of previously unbeaten Maryland served as their watershed moment as the visitors registered an unbelievable SEVEN takeaways on the night, five of which came in the first half alone. (Terps Quarterback) Taulia Tagovailoa only tossed one interception all season before coming in that fateful affair, as he was picked off five times when it was all said and done, as the visiting side utterly overwhelmed the hosts 31-0 in the second quarter. However, as ridiculously opportunistic as they’ve been thus far, Iowa will eventually need some more from the offensive side of the football, which has been little more than okay through the first half of the campaign. 33.2 points per game (44th in FBS) isn’t necessarily prolific, and the Hawkeyes have only produced 48.6 more total yards on average than their opponents, which again doesn’t lend towards a large margin for error. Granted, Ferentz’s boys have made the most of the excellent field position that the Defense has afforded them; the Offense averaged a rather paltry 35.5 yards on their six scoring drives last weekend, which has been in line with how they’ve performed thus far. This team has rarely been explosive in this regard under Ferentz, who would rather shorten the game by controlling time of possession via the run, and this group certainly fits that bill, though they’re clearly still growing into their roles. (Junior Center) Tyler Linderbaum is arguably the best at his position in the country, though even he hasn’t been able to spark a ground game that isn’t particularly humming at this point; the rushing attack has accounted for 126.0 yards per game on a rather pedestrian 3.4 yards per carry, and that’s with a healthy Tyler Goodson (99 CAR, 430 YDS, 4.3 Y/A, 5 TD) toting the rock. In his second season as the starter, (Redshirt Junior Quarterback) Spencer Petras (62.0%, 943 YDS, 6.9 Y/A, 7 TD, 1 INT) as the size and traits that you want in a pocket passer, but his production has been ordinary for the most part of his time in Iowa City. Sure, his decision-making his improved, but you can tell that he isn’t necessarily confident with the new group of Receivers, completing a hefty 40.0% of his passes to the aforementioned Goodson and (Junior Tight End) Sam Laporta (22 REC, 263 YDS, 12.0 Y/R, 2 TD), who appears to be next in line in the school’s long tradition at that position. At some point, this unit will be put in a position where it will be on their shoulders to win a game, for it’s completely unrealistic to think that the Defense will continue to grant them the luxury of operating with a Plus-4 turnover margin. Then again, it may be today’s matchup with Penn State; under Ferentz, the Hawkeyes are 9-8 in seventeen meetings with the Nittany Lions, though last season’s victory was their first against them in a decade (2010).