Penn State heads back to Kinnick Stadium on Saturday night for the first time since the 2017 Saquon Barkley show, and Juwan Johnson's walkoff tuddy from Trace McSorley. The cast of characters has changed, but sitting at 5-0, the Nittany Lions have a chance to make a big statement on against the Hawkeyes.
We spent much of the lead up to this season talking about how the first five games of the season were almost a preseason before the meat of the Big Ten schedule. What are your thoughts on how Penn State performed up to this point and where they sit heading into the second half of the year?
Craig Fritz: Sure, there have been moments of frustration, but this five game stretch has gifted James Franklin and his staff so many opportunities to improve the experience of the squad. Coming into the season, we touched on how incredibly young Penn State is on offense. Being able to build depth through five games is a luxury not afforded in most seasons. I think they’re clearly in the top echelon of the conference as the schedule ramps up.
Dan Smith: While the games did not individually play out as we all would have expected, the whole of their 5-0 start is pretty similar to how most mapped it out. The big thing to set up the rest of the schedule is what has come together: the pass rush found its footing, and Clifford looks comfortable enough to keep them competitive in every game. The trend of improvement should continue.
John Morgan: Penn State has a young team, and it has certainly shown that at times. But I feel that they have made progress since the bye week. 5-0 was the safe bet at this point, and as long as they continue to grow, they will be one of the best teams in the conference. There are some tough games remaining, but they have a defense that should give them a chance in every one.
Ricky Rahne seems to have found a passing game that suits Sean Clifford’s development at this point, but the running game still feels like a work in progress? Is this just a matter of gaining comfort, or could the four-back rotation be holding things back?
Craig: I think we have to decouple how we view success through the lens of a traditional rushing attack. You have four talented backs, all of whom are young. They all bring slightly different skill sets, and Rahne and Clifford have trusted them more in the passing game than the offense did last year. The backs already have 23 receptions, compared to just 30 a season ago. That said, four backs is probably one too many, but who are you taking out?
Dan: The former is part of the latter. The backs are finding their way in this offense, and the coaches are trying to learn how best to manage things. I anticipate the playing time being less evenly spread in the second half of close conference games. And when that happens, with what we have seen, I would assume that Noah Cain and Journey Brown are getting the bulk of the action.
John: This is a tough question because it’s hard to say which back is the best. They all possess skills you want. Cain has stood out at times, but he’s also later in the rotation and could have an advantage being fresh. To Dan’s point, it seems as if Brown and Cain could see a bigger bulk, but Slade brings a dynamic in the passing game. I feel like he will still see plenty of time unless he doesn’t protect the ball.
Penn State’s defense has been dominant by just about every measure over five games (fourth in yards per game, second in points per game). While the competition ramps up this week with Iowa, the Hawkeyes won’t be fielding a terribly potent offense. Can Brent Pry’s charges continue to put up these video game like numbers?
Craig: Pry’s unit has thoroughly dominated Iowa over the last three seasons, giving up an average of just 13 points. The Hawkeyes simply don’t boast enough athletes on offense to build or sustain a lead, and have graduated some significant playmakers to the NFL. I expect we’ll see more of the same this week, perhaps slightly tempered since Iowa is likely the best offensive line Penn State has seen thus far.
Dan: They should be able to. The run defense has been excellent throughout the season, and while the pass defense has had occasional lapses, Iowa is the sort of team you want to force to throw the ball. This could be the sort of game where the linebackers really shine, with their freak athleticism allowing them to cover the short passing game in a way few opponents are able to.
John: If the Michigan defensive performance against Iowa was any indication, it’s certainly possible. The Penn State defensive line has had two great games in a row. If they can continue to get a push, the linebackers are so talented that they can keep it going. They’ve done a better job at getting off of the field in the last two games and that’s crucial against an Iowa team that will want to control the ball.
Conversely, Iowa’s defense is among the stingiest in the country, and the stiffest test the offense will have faced up to this point. How does Penn State succeed against A.J. Epenesa and Co.?
Craig: Rahne and Clifford will need to locate playmakers in space. The Iowa defense is incredibly sound and well-coached, but outside of Epenesa doesn’t have freak athletes at many positions. The short to intermediate passing game will hopefully open up some opportunities for big plays later in the game.
Dan: Quick passing plays to let Sean Clifford get in an early rhythm would not hurt. That is a common trope for inexperienced quarterbacks, but Penn State has players like Pat Freiermuth, KJ Hamler, and Jahan Dotson that can make hay out of those sorts of plays. Early down gains on plays like that can open things up to establish the run game as well.
John: Getting the playmakers the ball early will be critical against Iowa. Penn State did a good job getting the ball to Freiermuth and Bowers last week after Hamler and Dotson opened things up. Penn State struggled in the red zone (until the last play, of course) their last time at Iowa, and getting touchdowns instead of field goals will put the Hawkeyes in an uncomfortable spot.
Prediction time. Can Penn State win its sixth in a row against the Hawkeyes, exorcise the “ranked road win” demons, and set up a mammoth home game against Michigan next weekend?
Craig: I keep going back and forth on how close I think this game will be, but in the end I still wind up with the Lions coming out on top. Penn State has proven it can win in Kinnick Stadium, but there are sure to be some nervy moments. Penn State 23, Iowa 19
Dan: Yes, this matchup favors the Nittany Lions and they should take care of business. The history with Iowa will not allow the players or coaches to look past this one, and Penn State’s defense should set the offense up to have plenty of opportunities to bring this one home. Penn State 24, Iowa 13
John: I have been running the last three games against Iowa in my mind. These include a blowout, a classic, and an ugly win. I think if Penn State can get to 28 points, Iowa will be in trouble, but I think it will be close. Look for the Nittany Lions to pull away in the fourth quarter. Penn State 30, Iowa 18