After four straight losses to begin the season, Penn State will take the field on Saturday vs. Iowa looking for its first win of the 2020 season. If the Nittany Lions are going to get in the win column this week, they’ll have to do it as 2.5-point underdogs against an Iowa team that’s won two straight games in blowout fashion.
The Hawkeyes started the season 0-2 after losses to Purdue and Northwestern but quickly turned things around with a 49-7 win over Michigan State, and a 35-7 win over Minnesota.
Penn State’s loss in Lincoln last weekend led to a quarterback controversy if you can even call it that. After Sean Clifford once again began the game poorly with an interception and fumble that directly led to 10 Nebraska points, quarterback Will Levis was put in the game. Despite James Franklin refusing to name a starting quarterback going into this game, it would be very surprising to see Levis not take the field as the starter on Saturday.
While you can point to Penn State’s red zone inefficiency as a major reason the team couldn’t finish this comeback, there’s also no denying that this team looked a lot different in the second half, especially the defense. The Nittany Lions appeared to show life again, outscoring Nebraska 17-3 in the second half.
If that second-half team shows up on Saturday, then there’s a reason to believe the Nittany Lions can get their first win of the season against Iowa. Here are three players/units that will play a key role in making that happen.
Quarterback Will Levis
Will Levis’s effort to bring Penn State back in last week’s game was incredible. Despite not winning the game, it was a major positive to see the life that Levis’s play brought to the team. Almost everything improved for Penn State after Levis entered the game on both sides of the ball, and the body language was a lot better.
While the stats weren't great – Levis finished the game completing 14 of his 31 passes for 219 yards while running for 61 yards on 18 carries – the difference between he and Clifford was clear. While turnovers had plagued Clifford's 2020, Levis was able to not make any such mistakes of his own. The question now becomes whether or not he can build on that effort against a very tough Iowa defense.
In 2019, Levis entered the game for Clifford at Ohio State and led the team to 17 unanswered points, completing 6 of his 11 passes for 57 yards and rushing for 34 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries. However, Levis then started the next game vs. Rutgers, and couldn’t generate any offense until the fourth quarter. Iowa will surely do everything it can to force No. 7 to beat them through the air, just as Rutgers did. How he responds will be key.
The other area in which Penn State needs Levis to thrive is in the red zone. According to Nate Bauer of Blue and White Illustrated, Penn State ran 25 offensive plays inside the red zone against Nebraska and only scored on one of them. Out of those 25 plays, 20 of them came while Levis was at quarterback. Assuming he starts, this is something that must improve for Penn State to win the game.
The Defensive Line
As mentioned earlier, Iowa has won their last two games in blowouts, defeating Michigan State 49-7 and Minnesota 35-7. Each victory was led by the running game.
Against Michigan State, Iowa ran for 226 and four touchdowns on 41 carries, which is an average of 5.5 yards per rush. Against Minnesota, Iowa ran for 235 yards and four touchdowns on 35 carries, which is an average of 6.7 yards per rush. Iowa’s starting running back Tyler Goodson has 375 yards and five touchdowns on 6.0 yards per carry over Iowa’s first four games. Stopping him will be Penn State’s number one priority.
Furthermore, it’ll be important for Penn State to get pressure on Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras. Petras, the first-year starter, is averaging only 189.75 passing yards per game, completing only 53.7% of his passes. He also has only thrown three touchdowns this season compared to four interceptions and isn’t a mobile quarterback.
Last week, Penn State had only one sack on quarterback Luke McCaffrey, and as a result, he was able to have a big first half for the Cornhuskers. While defensive end Jayson Oweh had a solid game with a team-leading nine tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and one QB hurry, defensive end Shaka Toney did not. Toney missed several tackles, and let Nebraska players get to the outside way too often on running plays. It will be a huge help if Toney can get back to form. If he can, then Petras will be in for a long day.
Chunk plays have been Penn State’s kryptonite this season, and several of them have been due to the safety play. Penn State allowed a 45-yard touchdown last week to Zavier Betts, which allowed Nebraska to extend their lead to 17-3 at the beginning of the second quarter.
This touchdown was the fifth passing touchdown of 30 yards or more that Penn State has allowed in their last three games. While this play came on a shovel pass and not a conventional deep ball, there wasn’t a safety to be found near the play, as defensive end Jayson Oweh was the closest guy to Betts when he entered the end zone. Football games can’t be won allowing these chunk plays.
While Spencer Petras has not impressed passing the football this season, Iowa still has four experienced wide receivers, all of which have produced in their careers. Tyrone Tracy Jr., Nico Ragaini, Ihmir Smith-Marsette, and Brandon Smith all can do damage at the receiver position. Additionally, Iowa’s leading receiver is its tight end Sam Laporta, who has 14 receptions for 133 yards so far this season.
Despite being a run-first team, expect Iowa to air it out more than usual with the way Penn State’s passing defense has looked. If the safeties don’t step up, then you can expect big plays from these experienced Iowa players.