Previewing Penn State Week 4: Away Against Iowa

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Daniel Murray lined up just inside the right hash marks, his holder down to one knee, the right leg bent, but supplanted on the ground. The wind was blowing strongly as the righty kicker, clad in an all black jersey and helmet, with a yellow Hawkeye logo on either side, back tracked twice, and side stepped to the left two more steps. The fate of the game hung in the balance as the Murray’s right leg swung through the cold air and made contact with the football, driving it high into the air. From 31-yards out, Daniel Murray and the Iowa Hawkeyes had drowned the National Championship aspiration of the 2008 Penn State Nittany Lions in a single kick on that night from Kinnick Stadium.

For most Penn State fans, that was one of a handful of iconic moments in which they could tell you exactly where they were when it happened. It hurt. All college football loses are magnified, especially prior to the College Football Playoff, but this one stung more than most. Penn State was the third ranked team in the nation. They were better on both sides of the ball. But as that night came to a close nearly 9 years ago, only one thing mattered: the 24-23 score that flashed across the TV.

Now, nine years, later, the Nittany Lions and the Hawkeyes will meet, once again, at night, at Kinnick Stadium. It won’t be nearly as cold. This game will be played a month and a half earlier in the season. But it could have similarly drastic implications on Penn State’s season should they lose. The Nittany Lions come into this matchup with Iowa ranked number four, undefeated at 3-0, but they haven’t truly been tested yet this season.

Similarly, Iowa enters this meeting undefeated at 3-0, having beaten Jake Allen and the Wyoming Cowboys in week one, and followed that victory up with a win against in-state rival Iowa State in the CyHawk series. Last week, they easily handled a lesser North Texas team. But much like Penn State, the Hawkeyes haven’t been truly tested either. If we’re comparing the two teams, I’d take Pitt over the lot, but it’s close. Wyoming and Iowa State are equally talented and just a percentage point worse than Pitt.

Iowa was expected to be in a transitional season this year, as they’re running out a new offensive coordinator and quarterback combination this season, but have outproduced to this point. Behind Head Coach Kirk Ferentz appears first time offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz. Brian Ferentz played for the Hawkeyes on the offensive line from 2002-2005. After his collegiate career ended, he spent four season with the New England Patriots Prior to being named the offensive coordinator, Ferentz was the offensive line coach from 2012-2016.

Ferentz brings with him a o-line mentality, and what do offensive linemen like to do more than anything? Run block. And that’s exactly what they’ll do. The Hawkeyes have run the ball on 141 of 224 plays this season, a 63 percent clip.

That run-pass ratio is how the Hawkeyes excel on both sides of the football. Iowa has led the time of possession battle in two of three games this season, and it hasn’t been close in either. Against Iowa State, they held the ball for over 37 minutes. Against North Texas, that number shot up to over 40 minutes. This ho-hum, three yards and a cloud of dust offensive style lulls defenses to sleep. That’s when Iowa hits you over the top for the big play. This style keeps the Iowa defense fresh and off the field in the early stages of the game, allowing them to be active in the final fifteen minutes when many other defenses are gassed.

Leading the way for the Hawkeye rushing attack is a dangerous two headed monster. The lead back, only titled that based on his bulk of carries, is Senior Akrum Wadley. Thus far, Wadley has taken 60 carries for 258 yards and a touchdown. That number of carries could be much higher if Wadley didn’t leave the game against North Texas last week with an apparent ankle injury after amassing just eight carries. Prior to that, he was given the rock 24 and 28 times in the first two games. The Newerk, New Jersey native isn’t the most physically imposing back at just 5’11” and 195, but he has the ability to get into the second level with frequency. His shiftiness cancels out his less-than-imposing stature as he is incredibly difficult to bring down. In order for the Nittany Lion defense to keep Wadley in check, they’ll have to wrap him up on the first effort. Many are comparing Wadley to Penn State’s own Saquon Barkley with his ability to run the football in open space and make defenders miss. He’ll easily be the best back that Penn State has seen to this point.

I haven’t forgotten the second part of that tandem, Senior Jame Butler. Wadley and Butler are the superhero equivalent to if the Flash and the Hulk teamed up. Butler is an imposing runner who transferred from the University of Nevada in the offseason. The only problem for Iowa in this one is that Butler injured his elbow last week against North Texas and has already been ruled out for this week and several coming. His loss will create a massive hole for the Hawkeyes in this one as they try to control the tempo and keep the Penn State offense on the sideline. Running in his place will be freshman Toren Young, who got 19 carries last week after Butler left the game and Iowa benched Wadley for an excessive celebration penalty. Young picked up 78 yards on those 19 carries, averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Back in April, Head Coach Ferentz called Young a great asset at best and insurance at worst. It appears the Hawkeyes are going to have to make more than insurance for the next few weeks. I’d expect Young to be the primary spell for Wadley, getting somewhere between 8-12 carries to Wadley’s 25-30.

While the running game dominates the offense, I would be remiss if I didn’t give some attention to the quarterback position. We’ve talked about it throughout the summer and now we’ve seen three games out of Sophomore quarterback Nathan Stanley. Of course, Stanley is a first-year starter who is replacing C.J. Beathard as Iowa’s signal caller. Beathard is now backing up Brian Hoyer with the San Francisco 49ers. Over the last two seasons, Beathard threw 663 times. Stanley had thrown nine passes before this season. But Stanley has stepped in and performed well through the non-conference schedule thus far.

To this point in the season, Stanley hasn’t been asked to do much more than game manage when each game begins. He’s not been asked to win football games, but rather, don’t lose them. He’s attempted 83 passes this year and completed 51 of them, a very respectable 61 percent. He’s thrown 10 touchdowns to just one interception, proving that the Hawkeyes can win with a stout run game, a good defense and a quarterback who doesn’t turn the ball over.

Granted, the pace of play dictates how you use your new quarterback, as he was thrown into the fire quickly when the Hawkeyes found themselves in a shootout with Iowa State. Stanley would eventually finish the day with 27 completions on 41 attempts. He threw for 333 yards and five touchdowns.

The receiving core is a completely different animal compared to the running game. There’s a reason the Hawakeyes run the football so frequently. From 2016 to 2017, the Hawkeyes were forced to find a way to replace three of their top four receivers, while the leading returning pass catcher is Akrum Wadley. The Iowa offense loses 87 receptions, 1145 yards and 10 touchdowns from departing wide receiver Riley McCarron (Texans training camp), suspended Jerminic Smith and tight end George Kittle (San Francisco 49ers). The leading returning true wide receiver is Matt VandeBerg, who hauled in 19 passes last year for 284 yards and three scores.

Thus far, it’s been junior receiver Nick Easley leading the way with 16 catches, 162 yards and two touchdowns as well as tight end Noah Fant, who’s caught seven passes, including three touchdowns. Fant is being used significantly more this season than last. He has just two less catches in three games than he had in 2016 and has already caught two more touchdowns. At 6’5″ and 232 pounds, he’ll be a difficult task for the Penn State linebackers and safeties. Easley is explosive off the line of scrimmage and uses his size and strength to shield the ball from defenders well. He’s caught at least four passes in all three games this year so far.

Unsurprisingly, the Hawkeye offensive line has been one of the best in the country in keeping their quarterback upright through the first three games. As 2017 trudges along, Nathan Stanley remains relatively unbruised, having been sacked just four times to this point. Trace McSorley has only been sacked twice to this point, but if you watch the war in the trenches each week, you’ll find that McSorley is getting flushed out of the pocket with more frequency than Stanley is, but is able to use his mobility to either climb the pocket or escape entirely.

Flip to the defensive side of the ball, and Iowa has been good in two of three games this season. They were throttled by Iowa State for 467 yards and 41 points, but still managed to escape with a victory. In their other two games, the Iowa defense has been stingy, allowing just 538 yards total, or 269 yards per game. For their efforts in the first three games of the season, the Hawkeyes rank 46th in yards allowed per game. The Nittany Lions sit in 23rd, allowing just 274 a game.

The Hawkeyes have been stout on run defense this season. Through three games, the Iowa front seven has seen 73 rushing attempts, and held those ball carriers to 291 yards, just under four yards per carry. Take into account David Montgomery ripped off a 36 yard run in the CyHawk Series and Jeffrey Wilson pulled a 41 yarder off, the Iowa defense has been very efficient against the run. Take those two runs out, and now you’re left with 214 yards on 71 carries, or just over three yards a carry.

Statistically, the Hawkeyes have been better than Penn State in run defense. Taking a second look, one has to understand the scope of those stats. Penn State has faced 55 more rushing attempts to this point in the season, and has only surrendered 87 more yards. The Nittany Lion front seven is actually getting better push toward the ball carrier, allowing an impressive 2.95 yards per carry.

As we’ve come to expect from the Hawkeyes over the years, Iowa is a very disciplined team. As a unit, Iowa is averaging just over five penalties per game, good enough for 41st in the country to this point. Conversely, the Nittany Lions have managed to be even better than that, as their tied for ninth, accruing just under 3.7 penalties per game.

This will certainly be the biggest test for the Nittany Lions in 2017 thus far. The Hawkeyes, despite their lackluster non-conference schedule, are solid on both sides of the football and have the home crowd factor behind them. While I do believe Penn State is better on paper, this reeks of the classic trap game to me. Don’t be surprised if Penn State starts slow as they go on the road for the first time this season. Penn State has historically underachieved at Kinnick Stadium. While I do think the Hawkeyes will provide a big test for the Nittany Lions, and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see a one score game either way, I think Penn State depth at skill positions makes the difference in this one. Akrum Wadley will be the best back they’ve faced to this point, but if the front seven can penetrate a legitimate offensive line, I still believe Penn State takes this one and improves to 4-0 on the season.

Final Prediction: 27-17 Penn State

 

Mandatory Credit: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

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