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Iowa Football Preview, Prediction: Hawkeyes Host PSU Under Lights

October 9, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

Hawkeye Nation

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa couldn’t come up with the answers Saturday to a Michigan pass rush that sacked quarterback Nate Stanley eight times. The Wolverines brought blitzes and forced the Hawkeye offensive line on its heels.

The task of blocking likely won’t become easier this week when No. 10 Penn State comes to Kinnick Stadium Saturday (6:30 p.m. CT, ABC). The Nittany Lions top the country in sacks (25).

The game features two of the nation’s top defenses. Penn State ranks second in the country, allowing 7.4 points per game, while Iowa sits third (8.8).

“We are playing a team that’s a Top-10 football team and certainly worthy of that,” Hawkeye coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They are playing with great confidence and momentum. They come in here, they are really doing well, typical of any Penn State team we have played through the years.”

The Lions (5-0) rely less on the blitz than does Michigan. Defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos (5.5 sacks) and Shaka Toney (5) rank among the league leaders in dropping the quarterback. Backup Jayson Oweh (2) also gets into the act.

Behind the talented front, stands a disruptive group of linebackers. Michah Parsons leads the way with 6.3 tackles per game, which includes six stops for loss. Cam Brown delivers 5.3 tackles an outing.

In the back end, safety Lamont Wade contributes 5.0 stops a contest. Cornerback John Reid ranks second in the conference with two interceptions and third with six passes defended.

“Honestly, that’s the best thing that could have happened for us,” Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley said of bouncing back from Michigan. “We know that Penn State is a great defense. There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves. We need to get back up on the horse and get ready to play.”

Penn State has gone up against only one defense (Pitt) with a pulse so far. That said, it’s performed as it should have against weaker competition.

But it’s not just the defense that has it in the Top 10.

The Lions rank second in the conference behind Ohio State in scoring (47.0 PPG) and total offense (499.6 YPG). Their passing attack (305.6 YPG) tops the league.

Sean Clifford has admirably replaced record-setting quarterback Trace McSorley, now with the Baltimore Ravens. The sophomore from Cincinnati leads the Big Ten with 261.3 passing yards per game. He also has 200 rushing yards and two scores. Averaging 328.6 yards of total offense per game, he leads the Big Ten and ranks 10th in FBS.

“This guy has been doing a good job throwing and running, and running their offense. Seems like things are going right along. That’s what you want your quarterback to do is to lead the offense first and foremost. Looks like he’s got a great future, so hopefully we can find a way to slow him down a little bit,” Ferentz said.

Speedy receiver K.J. Hamler serves as Clifford’s top target. He boasts a team-highs catches (19), receiving yardage (394) and receiving touchdowns (4). Fellow wideout Jahan Dotson has 12 receptions for 242 yards and three scores, while tight end Pat Freiermuth sits with 15 catches for 178 yards ad three TDs.

“K.J. is really good. I remember him last year. He’s a playmaker, I’ll say that,” Hawkeye safety Geno Stone said. “And they have a couple of other good guys out there, (Dotson), Justin Shorter, he’s a big guy. And they have one of the best tight ends in the Big Ten or even the country. You’ve got to be ready for everything.”

PSU has gone to a running back by committee after featuring current NFL ball carriers Saquon Barkley (Giants) and Miles Sanders (Eagles) the last few years.

Three different backs are averaging around the same amount of ground production. Journey Brown leads the way with 43.4 yards a game. Noah Cain chips in with 41.6 per contest, while Devyn Ford contributes 39.6.

Unlike Iowa, which has juggled its offensive line due to injury, the Lions’ five up front has started four games together. Four of the five guys up there have opened all five contests.

Redshirt freshman Rasheed Walker (6-6, 324) starts at left tackle opposite dangerous Hawkeye defensive end A.J. Epenesa. Junior Will Fries holds down the right tackle spot against Iowa’s Chauncey Golston, who tied for the team lead with eight tackles (two for loss) at Michigan to go with a sack.

Two years ago, Penn State escaped Iowa City with a victory on a late touchdown. That gave coach James Franklin a clear understanding of what a night game atmosphere in Kinnick Stadium is like.

“It’s loud. It’s hostile. You know, they are on top of you. They feed off of their crowd. We hope to prepare our guys in a way that we can feed off the energy in the stadium. You know, this is why you come to Penn State, to play in games like this and in these types of environments,” he said.

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SERIES: Saturday will be the 29th meeting between Iowa and Penn State. The Nittany Lions have won the last five meetings and hold a 16-12 advantage in the series. Penn State leads the series, 10-9, since 1993 when the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten Conference. Iowa is 5-9 all-time in games played in Iowa City.

Saturday marks the second year in a row the schools are meeting as AP top 25 opponents. No. 17 Penn State beat No. 18 Iowa, 30-24, on Oct. 27, 2018 in University Park, Pennsylvania.

The last top 25 matchup between these schools in Iowa City was Oct. 2, 2010, when No. 17 Iowa defeated No. 20 Penn State, 24-3. That was Iowa’s last win in the series.

BETTING LINES: Penn State opened as a 2.5-point favorite. It moved down to Iowa plus 3.5 as of Wednesday morning at the Elite Sportsbook in Riverside. The total was at 46.5.

TRENDS

-Penn State is 19-9-1 Against The Spread in its last 29 conference games.

-Under is 5-0 in Nittany Lions last 5 conference games.

-Iowa is 2-5 ATS in its last 7 conference games.

-Under is 3-0-1 in Hawkeyes last 4 games overall.

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PENN STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH

Sean Clifford, QB – Clifford faced the difficult task of replacing Hawkeye-killer, Trace McSorley. The sophomore has done so admirably so far, completing 66.7 percent of his passes for 1,443 yards and 12 touchdowns against just two interceptions. He also has done damage with this legs, rushing 43 times for 200 yards and a pair of scores.

KJ Hamler, WR – The junior from Michigan hurts opponents as a pass catcher and a return man. He’s caught 19 passes for 394 yards and four touchdowns this season, raising his per-catch average from 18.0 a year ago to 20.7. He’s averaging 19.0 yards per kick return and 6.1 on punt returns.

Yetur Gross-Matos, DE – The junior from Virginia ranks among the league leaders in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (5.5). At 6-5, 264, he combines excellent athleticism with strength. He can dig into a bag of advanced pass rushing moves.

KEYS TO VICTORY

Penn State: Penn State hasn’t faced a defense this salty. Can the Lions run the ball against it? That will be a key.

Iowa: Michigan’s defense dropped Nate Stanley eight times last weekend. The Hawkeyes face an outfit better at sacking the quarterback. Protection is a must.

GAME NOTES

-Penn State sophomore kicker Jake Pinegar and Iowa sophomore cornerback Riley Moss played together at Ankeny Centennial.

-Penn State has won its last 11 games against Big Ten West Division opponents, dating back to an overtime victory against Minnesota on Oct. 1, 2016.

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-Penn State (2nd, 7.4 ppg allowed; t-5th, 47.0 ppg scored) and Ohio State (4th, 8.8 ppg allowed; 4th, 49.3 ppg scored) are the only two teams to rank in the Top 10 nationally in both scoring defense and offense.

-Penn State is the only remaining FBS team that has not allowed a first quarter point this season.

-On two occasions this season 13 different Nittany Lions have caught a pass in the same game. Penn State first accomplished the feat against Idaho in the season opener and did so again at Maryland.

-Members of the ’09 Iowa football team will be recognized this weekend as part of the home football game with Penn State. As many as 50 members of the 2009 team are expected to be at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday.

-Iowa hosts Penn State in the 20th night game in the history of Kinnick Stadium. The Hawkeyes are 13-6 all-time in games played under the lights at Kinnick, and 3-4 against ranked opponents.

-Iowa has allowed five touchdowns in five games. Among Big Ten schools, only Penn State (4) and Wisconsin (4) have allowed fewer. The Hawkeyes allowed their first rushing touchdown of the season last week at Michigan.

-DE A.J. Epenesa leads Iowa with two sacks and five quarterback hurries. He led the Big Ten and ranked ninth in the country with 10.5 sacks in 2018.

-The Hawkeyes have four interceptions this season. Iowa led the Big Ten and tied for second in the country in 2018 with 20 interceptions. Over the last three seasons, no school has more interceptions than Iowa. The Hawkeyes have 45 interceptions since 2017, one more than Boston College has over the same period.

NOTABLE ALUMNI

Penn State – Jerry Sandusky

Iowa –  David Drake

HOWE I SEE IT: The sky is not falling, Hawkeye fans. It’s a one-score loss on the road against another ranked, Big Ten opponent. Let’s have some perspective, people.

Saturday’s game certainly shapes up as a defensive battle with two of the Top 3 stingiest units in the country. And when points are hard to come by, mistakes are magnified.

It’s difficult imagining Iowa playing a sloppier game than it did in Ann Arbor. And it has the benefit of Kinnick after dark.

Penn State’s lone road game came on a Friday night at Maryland. The Lions and first-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford haven’t faced a crowd anywhere near this hostile. Former signal caller Trace McSorley called it the toughest away venue in the Big Ten.

In a game where the teams are fairly evenly matched, the Hawkeyes are better tested and at home. That’s the difference in this one.

PREDICTION: IOWA 17, Penn State 16

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