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Iowa tight end Noah Fant is crucial to the Hawkeyes' chance for success against Penn State this weekend.

Iowa mailbag: Which opposing player made you wince, safety play crucial against Penn State

Have Iowa football questions? We’ve got answers. Join us every Thursday for the Land of 10 Iowa mailbag to discuss Hawkeyes football. This week, we’ll discuss Iowa’s ranking potential, Iowa’s defensive scheme and the player from the past who makes fans wince.

Question 1

ANSWER: Yes, I think that will be the case. The country will flip back and forth between the Iowa-Penn State game and the Michigan State-Notre Dame game Saturday night. If Iowa can be competitive against No. 4 Penn State, say a 38-31 loss, I’d expect voters to give the Hawkeyes the benefit of the doubt. Maybe that’s several more votes in the Nos. 21-25 range, but it probably edges Iowa upward in receiving votes.

In 2009, Penn State was ranked fifth and Iowa was unranked when the Hawkeyes won 21-10 in Happy Valley. The Hawkeyes soared to 15th the next week. But if the Nittany Lions roll again like last year, Iowa won’t receive a vote on Sunday.

Question 2

ANSWER: It’s an interesting question every year because Iowa rarely deviates from its 4-3 look. The focus is containment and great tackling, which means their linebackers are central to stopping faster players in space. If that doesn’t happen, the scheme looks horrendous.

The last two weeks, Iowa’s linebackers sometimes over-pursued opposing ball carriers and failed to even lay a hand on the opponent. That’s obviously the worst scenario any week and definitely for this game. Against North Texas, Iowa used more nickel-and-dime coverage — once even a seventh defensive back — but I don’t see that happening much against Penn State. Running back Saquon Barkley is too big and physical to let him run against backup defensive backs.

Question 3

ANSWER: Good question. On offense, I’ve got to go with the tight ends. Last year, a hobbled George Kittle caught just 2 passes for 9 yards. If Iowa can get vertical with the tight ends, especially on play-action passes, it will push Penn State’s talented safeties off the line of scrimmage and force them into coverage. That will open up the running game, which is essential to extending drives.

As for defense, I’ll go with free safety Amani Hooker. It’s plenty of pressure to put on a sophomore earning his first start, but he’s facing his greatest competition right out of the gate. Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki might be the nation’s best. Running back Saquon Barkley is the nation’s best. Wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton is one of the Big Ten’s top receivers. Trace McSorley is terrific as a dual-threat quarterback, and his play fakes are among the best. So that’s a lot to comprehend in a short period of time. Hooker will make a few mistakes, but as long as he doesn’t give up any explosive plays, he’ll be in decent shape.

Question 4

ANSWER: I was a little surprised simply because Iowa has beaten the last three top-5 opponents coming into Kinnick Stadium. But history and environment are intangibles. Last year’s 599-yard effort by Penn State against Iowa was tangible. Iowa’s defense struggled two weeks ago against a similar offense in Iowa State, and Penn State is better than the Cyclones at every position but wide receiver.

I wasn’t surprised Iowa was an underdog, but I thought double-digits (13.5 points to open) was a bit excessive, frankly.

Question 5

ANSWER: I posted this poll question on Wednesday after comparing Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley to former Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa. The response — which I expected — was edgy.

Persa replaced an injured Mike Kafka in 2009 and helped the Wildcats stun No. 4-ranked Iowa, which was 9-0 at the time. In 2010, Persa threw 2 fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat co-Big Ten leader Iowa 21-17. It cost the Hawkeyes a chance at the title that year.

Indiana quarterback Antwaan Randle-El terrorized Iowa from 1998 through 2000, and the Hawkeyes could never corral him. Finally in 2001, Iowa beat the Hoosiers with Randle-El, which helped the Hawkeyes reach a bowl game.

Iowa State quarterback Seneca Wallace beat the Hawkeyes in both 2001 and 2002, the latter of which prevented a perfect regular season for Iowa. In their 2002 game at Kinnick, the Hawkeyes led 24-7 at halftime before Wallace rallied the Cyclones to a 36-31 win.

Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman took off on a fake punt from his own 26-yard line midway through a 2010 game between the Badgers and Hawkeyes. Iowa led by 6 points and it was midway through the fourth quarter. The fake led to the game-winning touchdown and a 31-30 Wisconsin win.

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