IOWA CITY, Iowa — The sprint to the finish starts Saturday. The Hawkeyes know November is the month that will define this team.
Will it be one to remember? Will it be one with a defining moment? Or will it be a four-week stretch fans would prefer to forget?
It’s on Iowa, starting with its trip to Penn State, ranked 12th in the College Football Playoff rankings. What’s in store for the Hawkeyes?
When Iowa has the ball
All eyes will be on running back Akrum Wadley to see what he does in the slot. The hope is he can inject some life into a passing attack in need of help. A couple of catches, especially one like this touchdown reception from the Iowa State game, would make the move an immediate success.
It wouldn’t be a shock to see Wadley as a decoy on the first play he’s in the slot with the ball going to running back LeShun Daniels.
Quarterback C.J. Beathard said he’s healthy coming off the bye. The question is if that will allow him to become the playmaker he was last season. Iowa needs that version of Beathard to show up in the final month of the season.
Penn State’s pass rush will be a concern. The Nittany Lions are second in the league with 23 sacks. Iowa is 11th in sacks allowed with 20. Penn State defensive end Garrett Sickels is someone to keep an eye on. He leads the team with five sacks and could disrupt the Iowa passing attack before it gets started.
The good news for Iowa is that it appears the entire starting offensive line will play. The Nittany Lions give up rushing yards. They are 10th in the Big Ten, allowing 183.4 per game. The opportunity should be there for an Iowa squad that wants to run the ball with Wadley and Daniels.
Edge: Penn State
When Penn State has the ball
The Nittany Lions bring arguably the best Big Ten running back into the game. Saquon Barkley lead the conference with 888 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns. Barkley will be the main priority for Iowa, as he is central to Penn State averaging 33.6 points per game.
The Hawkeyes can’t overlook quarterback Trace McSorley in the running game. He’s gained 251 yards, and the Nittany Lions will utilize him if an opponent doesn’t pay attention to him.
McSorley is best used in the passing game, though. Penn State is third in the league averaging 230.5 passing yards per game. Penn State’s desire to take shots down the field stood out to Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, and anyone is a target. Seven different receivers have a reception of at least 40 yards, led by Chris Godwin (422 receiving yards, five touchdowns).
Spread offenses can give Iowa fans nightmares because it’s been a problem for the defense in the past. The Iowa defense enters playing its best football of the season, but Penn State will stress the Hawkeyes in ways most Big Ten foes don’t. Iowa will try to take away the run, but the Nittany Lions big-play aerial attack will still be a threat. It will require an all-around defensive effort to slow down Penn State. The key may be in getting Nittany Lions to third down, where they are last in the conference in conversion rate.
Penn State punt returner John Reid did take a punt return 52 yards earlier this season, but the edge in returning still goes to Iowa cornerback Desmond King.
The Nittany Lions lean on their field-goal unit more than anyone in the league. They’ve hit 13 field goals, tied for most in the Big Ten, on 14 kicks. Iowa is still one field-goal attempt away from double digits on the season.
Penn State punter Blake Gillikin is averaging 41.4 yards per punt with 14 punts landing inside the 20-yard line. Iowa punter Ron Coluzzi is averaging 40.8 yards per punt, with 14 inside the 20.
Penn State coach James Franklin ended all job security speculation when the Nittany Lions beat No. 6 Ohio State in October. The Nittany Lions, winners of four straight, are playing their best football under Franklin. He turned around Vanderbilt and may be doing the same in Happy Valley in his third year.
One more win and Iowa will be bowl eligible for the 14th time under Ferentz. Iowa is looking for more than just six wins out of this season and will need to beat at least one Top 25 foe to do it.
Penn State is surging as the season winds down. It’s a night game with the Nittany Lions trying to make it an unofficial “Whiteout.”
Iowa is coming off a bye, and Ferentz seemed happy (or as happy as he’ll let on) about his team during media availability this week. The Iowa defense vs. the Penn State offense should be a fairly even matchup. If the Hawkeyes are to entertain the notion of an upset here, the Iowa offense will need to find a way to move the ball against an improving Penn State defense.
Bobby La Gesse prediction: Penn State 27, Iowa 17
Scott Dochterman prediction: Iowa 23, Penn State 20