UPDATE: Here’s the full CFP rankings.
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Iowa will make its first trip to Beaver Stadium since 2011, when Joe Paterno was still the coach and Penn State ended the Hawkeyes’ three-game winning streak in the series.
The No. 20 Nittany Lions (6-2, 4-1 and ranked No. 12 in the first College Football Playoff rankings) still harbor Big Ten East Division title hopes while Iowa (5-3, 3-2) has an outside shot at the West Division. Penn State has won four straight Big Ten games, including one in which a fourth-quarter rally led to an upset of Ohio State two weeks ago. Iowa has lumbered along this year but has won nine consecutive road games, the nation’s second-longest win streak.
Here’s what Iowa will need to focus on this week for the game Saturday against the Nittany Lions:
1. Generate something in the passing game
Something … anything? Since wide receiver Matt VandeBerg’s injury two days after the fourth game, Iowa’s pass offense has struggled to find any rhythm. The Hawkeyes have hit for decent gains with wide receiver Riley McCarron and tight end George Kittle, but they need more from starting receivers Jay Scheel and Jerminic Smith. Iowa must convert a few times in chunks, not just nickel-and-diming up the field. Whether that’s using true freshman Noah Fant in the slot or getting Akrum Wadley looks out of the backfield, Iowa must generate a big plays in the passing game to hang with the Nittany Lions.
2. Avoid a second-half lull
This might be the most important talking point for Iowa this week. Penn State has outscored its last four opponents 102-29 after halftime and won all four games. The Hawkeyes were outscored 67-38 in their last four games and split 2-2. The Hawkeyes have a 5-3 overall record but have led at halftime in every game except the last one, when they trailed Wisconsin, 7-6.
Penn State’s run defense ranks 10th overall in the Big Ten but has been stout in the fourth quarter. Its last three opponents have rushed for seven yards on 28 carries in the final period.
3. Be alert on special teams
Penn State has used big special teams plays the last two weeks to its advantage. In the fourth quarter against Ohio State, the Nittany Lions blocked a field goal that was returned for a touchdown and blocked a punt that led to a field goal. Last week at Purdue, Penn State recovered a muffed punt that led to a touchdown and kept the Boilermakers from recovering a surprise onside kick.
4. Revel in the atmosphere
With the Big Ten split into geographical divisions, Iowa regularly visits only two other Big Ten football cathedrals: Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium and Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium. Both are hostile locations for the Hawkeyes, but they prevailed in each of their last two visits to both.
Penn State’s Beaver Stadium is similar to Camp Randall but bigger. The unofficial “whiteout” should make it a raucous environment, coupled from a program gaining momentum. Iowa has shown in the past it can ignore and even thrive in a road atmosphere. This game will test whether that theory holds true.
5. Make it a battle of attrition
Iowa lives for physical play in the trenches. But when it comes down to late-game execution, the results are mixed this year. Iowa won late road games at Rutgers and Minnesota by hammering at the defense until there was a crack. Conversely, Iowa lost in the same manner to North Dakota State and Wisconsin. Penn State gives up 183.4 yards a game on the ground, 10th in the Big Ten. If Iowa’s offensive line can establish a physical tone with the run, it will be there for all four quarters.