IOWA CITY, Iowa — Unbeaten Iowa and No. 4-ranked Penn State kick off Big Ten play with one of the nation’s best games of the weekend at 7:30 p.m. ET (6:30 p.m. CT) Saturday at Kinnick Stadium. ABC will broadcast the game.
The matchup features two of the nation’s best running backs in Penn State’s Saquon Barkley and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley. Among Big Ten teams Barkley ranks first in all-purpose yards with 218.3 per game. Wadley is third at 170 after sitting out the second half last week. Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley leads the Big Ten with 10 touchdown passes, while Penn State’s Trace McSorley is second with 9.
Penn State rolled over Iowa 41-14 last year en route to the Big Ten title. The teams haven’t played in Iowa City since 2012.
Here are three keys for Iowa and predictions for the game:
Tackle in space
Holy smokes did Penn State abuse Iowa’s defenders last year. The Nittany Lions put up 599 yards — second-worst in the Kirk Ferentz era — with five plays of 40-plus yards. Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead found mismatches, isolated the Hawkeyes’ slower defenders and attacked with a pace Iowa couldn’t match. If you weren’t personally invested in it, you’d have to applaud at the execution.
The Nittany Lions likely will try to recycle that plan this year. With dual-threat quarterback McSorley, the nation’s top running back in Barkley, an All-Big Ten-caliber receiver in DaeSean Hamilton and an All-American tight end in Mike Gesicki, there are mismatches everywhere. The Hawkeyes need to minimize those threats and tackle in space. If it’s a 7-yard rush for Barkley, keep it to 7 yards. If it’s a 12-yard catch by Gesicki, do the same. Make Penn State fight for slices of yards, not pick them up in chunks.
“What we can’t do is just give [Barkley] stuff that’s uncontested,” Ferentz said. “If we do that, I can already tell you what the result is going to be. It’s easy to predict. And it’s the same which with their tight end. He’s a big target. He’s going to make some big plays just because of his height. We’ve seen him on film do a lot of that. So that’s a tough match-up, but we’re going to have to really be smart positionally, that type of thing. If you just let them go where they want to go, it’s going to be really difficult for us, so we’re going to have to try to be a little bit disruptive that way, but again, easier said than done.”
Keep Trace McSorley in the pocket
McSorley is both elusive and accurate. He’s dangerous in the pocket but even more so on the run. McSorley has completed 67 percent of his passes this season for 753 yards, 9 touchdowns and just 2 interceptions. With the Nittany Lions’ offensive weapons, the worst possible scenario for Iowa is if McSorley races toward the line of scrimmage and forces the secondary to come up for the tackle, thus leaving a receiver wide open.
“He’s unique in his own ways,” Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson said. “He can stay in the pocket, get out of the pocket and throw, athletic, he can run.”
“I think he’s a really shifty guy,” Jackson continued. “He can make plays on the run. You want to get to him fast.”
Convert drives into points
Every team wants to score as often as possible, but not every squad is playing a team of Penn State’s quality every week, either. Iowa can’t afford to leave points on the field, whether it’s a fumble at the goal line that strays out of the end zone for a touchback or a penalty for premature celebration that wipes a score off the board. Both of those happened last week against North Texas.
Iowa needs to straddle the line of maintaining possession but hitting enough big plays to stay balanced offensively. Grind it out works for a while, but sometimes that leads to a third-and-2 failure and one possession could get you beat against Penn State.
“We want to keep them off the field to give our defense a rest, and I think that’s the same for every game,” Stanley said. “Being able to control the possession game definitely helps the defense a lot.”
SCOTT DOCHTERMAN — Penn State 38, Iowa 31
BOBBY LA GESSE — Penn State 34, Iowa 31