Game Preview: Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Iowa Hawkeyes

By Matthew Filipovits on November 20, 2020 at 12:59 pm
Nov 13, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes quarterback Spencer Petras (7) drops back for a pass during pre game warmups before a game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
© Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
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Everything has gone wrong for Penn State in 2020. The Nittany Lions have to win out to avoid their first losing season since 2004. That quest starts with a home game against Iowa.

  Penn State Iowa
2020 Record 0-4 2-2
Head Coaches James Franklin (80-42, 56-27 with Penn State) Kirk Ferentz (164-106, 164-106 with Iowa)
Kickoff 3:30 PM EDT 
Television BTN
Stream Watch Fox Sports
spread Iowa -2.5

A balanced Hawkeye Offense

The Hawkeyes have thrown the ball 137 times this year and run the ball 135 times. That's the type of balance most teams can only dream of and it's worked so far for the Hawkeyes. Brian Ferentz's offense ranks fourth in the Big Ten with 31 points per game, with the offense clicking especially while over the past two weeks.

Tyler Goodson leads the way for the Iowa backfield, averaging an impressive 5.95 yards per carry. He's backed up by Mekhi Sargent, who provides a good change of pace. While that's about as balanced as you can get, it's clear they do the most damage on the ground. Brian Ferentz's offense leads the Big Ten with 5.4 yards per rush while ranking No. 13 with 5.6 yards per pass attempt. 

A Stout Hawkeye Defense

As is tradition, Iowa has one of the best defenses in the conference. Through four games, the Hawkeyes are allowing just 15 points per game, including just 14 total in their last two games vs. Michigan State and Minnesota. 

The good news is A.J. Epenesa is now with the Buffalo Bills. However, Iowa is still having little trouble getting to the quarterback. Zach VanValkenburg and Daviyon Nixon have 3.5 and 3 sacks respectively, and fellow lineman Chauncey Golston has a pair of his own. All told, the Hawkeyes defense has gotten to opposing signal-callers 11 times thus far. That is not the type of stat you want to hear given Penn State's inability to protect the passer through four games.

Another red flag for Nittany Lion fans should be the eight interceptions and two fumbles recovered. Safety Jack Koerner already has three picks, while corner Riley Moss and linebacker Barrington Wade have two each. Penn State has already thrown six interceptions this season, but turnovers will be especially crucial this week given the Hawkeyes' ability to take the ball away.

Offensive Mix and Match

Speaking of the offense, all eyes are on Will Levis and Sean Clifford heading into the game. James Franklin has opted not to publicly name a starter during both of his media appearances this week. However, it seems likely that given the spark provided by Levis' entrance vs. Nebraska, the redshirt sophomore gets the call to start things.

Up front, the Lions shuffled things along the line last week, with the group of Rasheed Walker, Mike Miranda, Michal Menet, Will Fries, and Caedan Wallace seeing the bulk of the reps along the offensive line. It was a long way from perfect, but that combo seemed to provide a few more openings for the ground game, and better protect the quarterback.

At receiver, Jahan Dotson, Parker Washington, and KeAndre Lambert-Smith emerged vs. Nebraska as Taylor Stubblefield's preferred group. Dotson was largely kept in check, but Washington played the best of his four collegiate games to date, and Lambert-Smith came up with a couple of key grabs in the ill-fated comeback bid.

Punt a Football to the Sky Like trace McSorley If...

  • The energy Penn State got when Will Levis entered the game against Nebraska sticks around for another week. Both the offense and the defense finally started to feed off of each other a bit with the change at quarterback. Energy alone isn't enough to win, but it's still badly needed for what had previously been a lifeless squad.
  • The defensive line gets pressure on Spencer Petras. The Penn State defensive line still has a ton of potential but hasn't been able to be too disruptive yet thanks to the number of quick passes available for the opposition. Stil, Petras is the furthest thing from a world-beater. If Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney can get in his face, it could turn the tide.
  • The defense looks prepared. The biggest issue for the Nittany Lion defense in 2020 has been the unit just looking completely unprepared for what's coming. That falls squarely on Brent Pry's shoulders, but he has a chance to fix that this week. After all, the names may be new, but this is the same offense Iowa has been running since 1954.

Try to Ignore Iowa Fans Telling You they Own Penn State Despite This Being Their First Win in a Decade if...

  • Levis is forced to pass to win. Big No. 7 can do a lot of things well, but he's simply not a pass-first quarterback. If Iowa is able to shut down the run game, this could get ugly. The offensive line looked a tad better last week with the change in the lineup, but this is a different test.
  • The linebacker unit's inexperience shows up against a strong Iowa rushing attack. The formula for each defense is fairly similar – make them pass to win. The difference is that Iowa is much better equipped to do that than Penn State, and it starts with the linebackers. Ellis Brooks and Jesse Luketa need to step it up and allow Brandon Smith to just flow freely and make plays.
  • James Franklin and his staff coach scared. In the past, we've seen Franklin coach very conservatively when his back is against the wall. But at this point, his team isn't likely to be favored the rest of the way barring a win or two. Franklin needs to channel his inner-Vanderbilt days and be aggressive all night long, especially when points could very well be at a premium.

Prediction in gif form

In the end, Iowa may just be a bit too tough for the Lions to crack in their first game with Levis at the helm since last year's regular-season finale against Rutgers. In that one, we saw what happened when a team had a full week to prepare for Levis and his power-running style of quarterback play. The Scarlet Knights were able to force Penn State to win via the pass, and while it worked, it was never comfortable.

Iowa's defense is significantly better than that 2019 Rutgers defense. They're the No. 3-ranked defense by SP+ for a reason. Penn State could be in real trouble very quickly if they allow VanValkenburg and Nixon to bust up the mesh point in the read-option game on a consistent basis. Levis was able to complete some easy passes against Nebraska a week ago, but he won't get as many of those easy looks again this time around. He needs to use his legs to be successful.

On the other side, Penn State should finally come in a game prepared on defense since Iowa is so predictable, but knowing what's coming is only part of the equation. Whether or not they can stop it is another.

It's not likely that either side runs away with this one, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Petras give the ball away once or twice, but this Iowa defense is simply too good. It looks like the nightmare is set to continue.

Iowa 24, Penn State 16

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