Ihmir Smith-Marsette YAC Penn State

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Before the season, a strong case could be made that the toughest game on Iowa’s schedule was this week’s trip to Penn State. The Nittany Lions entered the campaign as a Top 10-ranked team and had beaten the Hawkeyes six times in a row.

But as they say, that’s why they play the games. PSU is 0-4 for the first time since 2001. It’s the only winless team in the Big Ten. The Lions, who never have started a season dropping their first five games, play host to Iowa Saturday (2:30 p.m. CT, BTN).

Still, the Hawkeyes are focusing on Penn State’s potential.

“Their record is almost irrelevant,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. “They’re a really talented team and they’re really close a lot of these games. The worst thing we could do would be to look at their record and take these guys lightly because they’re a really talented team. They have some really good players.

“It’s going to be a good game on Saturday. They’re going to bring a good fight, so we need to be ready.”

The Hawkeyes (2-2) are winners of two in a row after dropping their first two contests by a combined five points. Their defense is developing into one of the country’s best.

During a 30-23 loss at Nebraska last week, Penn State benched starting quarterback Sean Clifford (nine touchdowns, six interceptions), who led the team to 11 wins in ’19. He was replaced by Will Levis. Clifford was listed as the No. 1 on this week’s depth chart.

“They’re both great quarterbacks,” Hawkeye linebacker Seth Benson said. “We know that they’ve won many games with them. Whatever they do, we just have to prepare, know their tendencies, know what each one of them is good at.”

The Lions boast one of the country’s top tight ends in Pat Freiermuth (23-310, 1 TD) and a dangerous receiver in Jahan Dotson (23-388, 5 TD). True freshman wideout Parker Washington (19-225, 3 TDS) ranks among the top newcomers in the nation.

Penn State stressed defenses with mobile quarterbacks. Clifford and Levis have 231 yards rushing.

Offense hasn’t been the issue for the Lions. A team normally stout on defense has been porous this season. It’s yielded 34.8 points per game, the third most in the conference. Opponents have been efficient against it.

“We got to find a way to play better in opening drives, we got to protect the ball on offense, and we got to play our brand that we’ve been playing on defense in the second halves earlier in games,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “But I think more than anything, it’s tackling, and it’s being able to adjust to all the different looks that we’re getting early in games, and being able to understand there’s going to be some things that show up in games, that it’s the first time that you’re seeing it.”

PSU has disrupted the Hawkeyes in recent years with pressure. They done it with NFL-level defensive linemen, which it has again in Jayson Oweh and Shaka Toney, and also with well-time blitzes. Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras has been studying ways to beat the heat.

“When we go against our scout team, they’re doing their best to show us the look that they’re instructed to. It’s all scripted. We do our best to prepare for all the looks we think we’re going to get,” he said.

Said wideout Tyrone Tracy Jr. “Just knowing a team blitzes a lot, you always have to be on your Ps and Qs, making sure you’re aware of who’s blitzing and what gap they’re blitzing on. Us as receivers, we have to be in connection with the quarterback and making sure we’re seeing eye to eye and we’re on the same page.”

The Hawkeye defense has been among the country’s stingiest, ranking 12th nationally by allowing only 14.8 points per game. The 2.8 yards per rush it has allowed are the fewest in the league.

“I would say that, where they’ve kept their mentality almost completely intact is on the defensive side of the ball. What they’re able to do is, this is who we are and this is what we play. And now we spend all our time on learning what our opponent does and how they’re going to try to attack us and then make subtle tweaks that we have to emphasize so we can stop them,” Franklin said.

TV ANNOUNCERS: Joe Beninati, Matt Millen, Rick Pizzo on BTN.

SERIES: Saturday will be the 30th meeting between Iowa and Penn State. The Nittany Lions have won the last six meetings and hold a 17-12 advantage in the series.

The series is tied, 10-10, since 1993 when the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten Conference. Iowa is 7-7

all-time in games played in University Park.

BETTING LINES: The game opened as a pick’em at VegasInsiders.com. Iowa moved to being a 2.5-point favorite as of Tuesday morning. The total was at 47.5.

TRENDS

-Hawkeyes are 19-7 Against The Spread in their last 26 games as a road favorite.

-Hawkeyes are 1-3-1 ATS in their last 5 conference games.

-Nittany Lions are 4-1 ATS in their last 5 games as a home underdog.

-Under is 4-1-1 in Nittany Lions last 6 conference games.

PENN STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH

-Pat Freiermuth, TE – He owns the Penn State career record for receiving touchdowns by a tight end with 16 career touchdown grabs. He broke a tie with Mike Gesicki (2014-17) with a touchdown catch at Indiana in the season-opener. His 16 touchdown receptions make him the career active leader in FBS among tight ends. has a reception in his last 29 games (all but his first career game), marking the fifth-longest active streak in FBS and tied for the longest among tight ends.

– Jahan Dotson, WR – Dotson leads the Big Ten and ranks 25th nationally with five receiving touchdowns. His 388 receiving yards rank third in the Big Ten, and his 97.0 receiving yards per game rank fifth, as well as 28th in the FBS. Dotson was the first Penn State football player to have a touchdown catch in each of the first three games of a season since Allen Robinson accomplished the feat in 2013 (vs. Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, UCF).

-Jayson Oweh, DE – Oweh is averaging 6.8 tackles per game to rank 12th in the FBS among defensive linemen. His 27 tackles are the most in the first four games of a season

by Penn State defensive lineman since at least 2000. He has a tackle for loss in his last three games. He has 19 tackles over the last two weeks, tallying nine at Nebraska last week and a career-best 10 tackles the previous week against Maryland.

KEYS TO VICTORY

Penn State: The Nittany Lions have not been able to stop anybody this season, fielding one of their worst defenses in recent memory. They won’t stop Iowa, but to not slow it down will lead to another loss.

Iowa: The Hawkeyes’ defense is getting better each week, playing consistently well. If their offense takes care of the ball and limits mistakes, that should be enough to win again.

GAME NOTES

-Penn State has won the last six games against Iowa, but the last three have each been decided by just one possession.

-Penn State junior K Jake Pinegar and Iowa junior DB Riley Moss and redshirt freshman LS Zach Kluver played together at Ankeny Centennial in Iowa. Penn State redshirt sophomore OL Juice Scruggs and WR

Henry Fessler and Iowa sophomore DB Terry Roberts played together at Cathedral Prep in Erie.

-PSU true freshman WR Parker Washington is the only freshman (true and redshirt) to have three 70 or more-yard receiving yard games in his team’s first four games this season.

-Penn State ran 91 offensive plays at Nebraska, marking backto-back games (Maryland) with 90 or more plays. The last time the Nittany Lions had back-to-back games with 90 or more plays came in 2012 (99 vs. Northwestern, 10/6/12; 90 vs. Iowa, 10/20/12).

-Penn State ranks fifth in the Big Ten and 32nd nationally allowing 129.5 yards per game on the ground.

-Iowa P Tory Taylor ranks second in the B1G and 13th in the country averaging 45.8 yards per punt. The freshman has downed 13 of his 20 punts inside the 20, six inside the 10, and three inside the five. He has no touchbacks. He has eight punts of 50-plus yards, with a career-high 61 yard punt Week 3 vs. Michigan State. Iowa leads the country in punt defense.

-The Hawkeyes rank second in the B1G with 8 INTs (Indiana, 11). Iowa has 61 INTs since 2017, the most in the country. The Hawkeyes have at least one INT in 11 straight games. They have 16 total interceptions during that stretch. FS Jack Koerner is tied for the Big Ten lead with three INTs. He has one interception in each of the last three games.

-Iowa true sophomore Tyler Goodson has started the last 8 games at running back and has 9 rushing TDs during that stretch. He has back-to-back multi-TD games and back-to-back 100-yard rushing games (113, 142 yards). Iowa ranks second in the B1G with 11 rushing TDs. Mekhi Sargent has four rushing scores (1, 2, 6, 14). Spencer Petras (1) and Nico Ragaini (1) have 1 each.

-Iowa has not allowed 30 points to an opponent since Nov. 3, 2018, a streak of 21 games, the longest in the country (Iowa 21, Ohio State 19, San Diego State 18, FAU 12, Buffalo 10, Cincinnati 9).

-Hawkeye DT Daviyon Nixon leads an Iowa defense that ranks No. 2 in the conference in pass defense (201.5), No. 3 in scoring defense (14.8), No. 3 in total defense (314.3), and No. 4 in rush defense (112.8). Nixon leads the Big Ten with 7.0 tackles for loss. DL Zach VanValkenburg is tied for the conference lead with 3.5 sacks.

NOTABLE ALUMNI

Penn State – Herman Fisher

Iowa – W. D. Snodgrass

HOWE I SEE IT: Having watched Penn State play more than once this fall, its 0-4 record is deserved. It’s an average football team at best with a leaky defense and a mistake-prone offense.

The Nittany Lions are missing key pieces to the team, not the least of which is linebacker Micah Parsons, who opted out of the season. He’s a projected first-round NFL Draft Pick. They’re also without their top two running backs in Journey Brown and Noah Cain, who are sidelined with health issues.

The fear for Iowa is that they put it together this week. PSU is moving the ball but not turning that into enough points. And it’s allowing big plays on defense, something it could limit if it tightens up on that side of the ball.

Penn State has good players. They just haven’t come together as a team while Iowa has done so. Until I see the the Lions gel, I can’t pick them to win.

PREDICTION: IOWA 24, Penn State 17

HawkeyeNation.com’s Rob Howe has covered Iowa Hawkeye sports for 24 years and began working at HawkeyeNation.com in 2003. Please follow @RobHoweHN and @HawkeyeNationHQ on Twitter.