IOWA CITY, Iowa — After a week off, the Iowa football team has a chance to make November memorable or forgettable. That starts this Saturday at Penn State.
The teams haven’t played since 2012 in what once was a highly competitive series. The Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) and No. 20 Nittany Lions (6-2, 4-1) face off for the first time in Happy Valley in five years. Penn State coach James Franklin called for another iconic whiteout to coincide with its night game aired by BTN (7:30 EST).
Q: Saquon Barkley looks like a special kind of running back with the moves, quickness, speed and power of a slightly smaller Curtis Enis. Was this kind of success expected when he arrived on campus, and what’s Barkley’s ceiling?
Jones: If someone tells you that they knew Barkley had this in him, then they’re lying. He wasn’t heavily recruited, had good tape, but guys hurdling over defenders in high school is an interesting novelty, not the sign of a Big Ten POY [player of year] candidate. Even when he got on campus, it was Akeel Lynch taking the majority of the snaps, and in Penn State’s opener against Temple last year Barkley only had one carry. After that, the rest was history. So I don’t think anyone really had expectations for him, at least not as a freshman. As far as his ceiling, I don’t like flirting with hyperbole all that much but Barkley is as good as anyone in the nation. Sometimes his blocking isn’t there, but pound-for-pound he’s as talented as any running back in the nation. If Penn State gets just a bit better next year and can get him consistent blocking, there isn’t any reason why he can’t be a Heisman contender. Doesn’t mean he will win it, or should, but he has earned the right to be in the conversation.
Q: After losing to Pittsburgh in a rivalry renewal and then getting beaten decisively by Michigan, the Nittany Lions appeared once again to flirt with mediocrity. However, in the games following the Michigan loss, Penn State looks like a program capable of taking the leap from also-ran to contender. How did the Nittany Lions do it?
Jones: I think people didn’t take James Franklin seriously when he said the team was young. You see the same thing with Michigan State, a team that is replacing key players. It just takes time to get comfortable again. Three defensive linemen headed to the NFL, Hackenberg to the NFL, Geno Lewis to Oklahoma. Also, you can’t say enough good things about the job Joe Moorhead has done with the offense, if anyone deserves praise for turning the corner with this program it’s him. Pitt was the better team in Week 2 and Penn State never had a chance to beat Michigan. So, in short, the team is learning, the offense is clicking and the defense is finally healthy.
Q. In what ways has Trace McSorley elevated the offense, and is he the perfect dual-threat fit to run James Franklin’s offense?
Jones: For as long as Franklin is at Penn State, it’s going to be quarterbacks like McSorley running the show. Penn State is going to recruit for a type of quarterback now instead of the best available and McSorley is an example of this. He’s smart, he’s calm and he’s making good decisions. He isn’t going to Braxton Miller your defense, but he’s going to get 5-15 yards if the chances are there and he isn’t afraid to take a hit if need be. I think his decision-making is really the biggest key to how he has helped the offense. He knows what he can and can’t do and he doesn’t go too far outside that set of parameters during the game. I think that alone has given him a lot of confidence, and Joe Moorhead’s play calls have been a perfect combo.
Q. Iowa and Penn State had an intense series that lasted about a decade. Then in the second wave of Big Ten realignment, the teams haven’t played since 2012. What’s the feeling around State College about the Hawkeyes these days? Are they just another opponent or are there still old rivalry overtones?
Jones: It probably isn’t quite as intense as it once was, but I think Iowa is still a team Penn State fans take seriously, or, in the very least, are excited to see on the schedule again. Iowa’s season has probably put a damper on that a bit this year, but I think Penn State fans will always have some extra spice towards Iowa given the recent results between the two teams and the implications those games had on Penn State’s seasons.
Q: Linebackers Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda both missed significant time with injuries but are back. How much better has Penn State’s defense performed with those two players in the lineup?
Jones: Simply put, Penn State doesn’t beat Ohio State without them. They’re everything to this defensive unit and having them back is the difference between a big hole in the middle of the field and something teams have to take seriously. You saw this against Purdue, a team to a certain extent was going to do this anyway, but went outside with throws on a regular basis to avoid those two. When they’re clicking, they’re a tough duo to stop. The entire defense has had tackling issues, those two included, but they are the difference between a dynamic defense and a defense just trying to survive. The past few weeks the schemes have been watered down for the second- and third-team guys, Penn State can go to better looks and more audibles with Bell and Cabinda back.
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