I expected this one to be close. I had my reservations on a night game, against Iowa, in Kinnick Stadium, and for good reason. The last four teams to come into Kinnick ranked fifth or better, including the 2008 Penn State squad, walked out with a loss. It was the first road game of the 2017 season for Penn State, the first Big Ten conference game, and the first true test after having a stroll-through-the-park-like non-conference schedule. So there were no guarantees in this one. I quelled my expectations and cautiously predicted a 27-17 victory for the Nittany Lions. As you know, it was even closer than that. But as I sat on one of my best friend’s living room couches, cussing and shouting obscenities in vain, I learned some things about this Penn State team that snuck out of Iowa City and limped back to State College tested, battered and bruised, but victorious.
1. The Offensive Line Appears To Have Many Flaws
Prior to Saturday’s Big Ten matchup, the Penn State offensive line appeared to be improved from years past. They were bullying opposing defenses off the ball and finding lanes for Saquon Barkley to easily fit through. But in this matchup with Iowa, their shortcomings became exposed. They were bullied backwards by a stronger, more talented front seven than what they had seen to that point in the season. Iowa finished the evening with four team sacks. Two and a half of those sacks came form sophomore defensive end Anthony Nelson, who will be playing on Sundays in the near future. He caused havoc, but the rest of the Iowa defense created problems as well. Too often in Saturday’s contest did we see Brendan Mahon get beat, either around the edge or straight up the middle by a combination of defensive linemen, through stunts and bull rushes, and middle linebackers. Between Nelson and linebacker Josey Jewell, the pair made 5.5 tackles for loss. It wasn’t just Mahon who looked shaky, though. Andrew Nelson also frequently looked out of position. What concerns me is that Iowa only had five sacks in three games prior to Saturday. They finished the day with four. Those four propelled the Hawkeyes to a tie for 54th in the nation. In the coming weeks, the Nittany Lions will have to match up with the Michigan and Ohio State front sevens, which are both in the top 30 in sacks this season. The offensive line will need to quickly come together against Indiana next week.
2. The Defensive Line, However, Played Brilliantly
While the offensive line struggled with consistency, the “Wild Dogs” went hunting Saturday. With Torrence Brown in street close this weekend, which we later found out would mean he was being shut down for the remainder of the season, Shareef Miller wore his downed comrade’s number. The lone starting defensive end standing was wildly productive in this one, picking up five tackles, including two for a loss, and one quarterback hurry. He was also credited for the tackle in the endzone, resulting in two crucial points for the Nittany Lions off of the safety. But what he did off the stat sheet was the most impressive part. Miller demanded a double team much of the game, allowing a free blitzing lane for the likes of Jason Cabinda and Marcus Allen up the middle. While the defense only sacked quarterback Nathan Stanley once, the mounting pressure was there. Stanley finished the day 13 of 22 for 191 yards and a QBR of 50.4. The Hawkeyes weren’t able to stretch the field, for what limited downfield shots they take. Of those 191 yards, 70 came on one reception from running back Akrum Wadley, who took a pass out in the flat, and took advantage of an overpursuing Penn State rush, dodged a couple of would-be tacklers, and scampered into the endzone. Take that play out and you’re looking at a Stanley stat line of 12-21 for 121 yards and one touchdown. Speaking of Akrum Wadley, the defensive line did a tremendous job of keeping him contained in the running game. He finished the day with 19 carries for 80 yards and one score, but he was held in check for a majority of the game. Of Wadley’s 19 carries, 12 of them went for one yard or fewer, including a multitude of negative rushing attempts. Wadley’s stats will show he had a productive game, but it was two big plays that accounted for 105 of his 175 total yards on the day and both of his touchdowns. The Penn State defense did there job in this one.
3. The Kicking Game Is Having Trouble Somewhere
Coming into 2017, Tyler Davis had missed one kick in his collegiate career that wasn’t blocked. In other words, Davis has been almost perfect when it comes to field goal attempts that traveled to or near the goal post. But this season has been different. Davis is just 4-8 this season, having missed from inside 40 three times. It’s been puzzling to say the least and almost impossible to believe that Davis has just completely lost the accuracy with his right foot. It took me four games to pinpoint just what Davis’ problem is, but I have finally come to an inevitable conclusion: Davis is struggling because of a change in long snapper. For the past two seasons, Davis has worked with Tyler Yazujian as his primary long snapper. Yazujian was generally accurate on his snaps to whomever might be holding for Davis, whether it be Chris Gulla, Billy Fessler, or any of the other holders throughout the last two seasons. Since Yazujian’s graduation last spring, the Nittany Lions have clearly had a tough time replacing him at an all important, often overlooked positions. It’s one of those positions that doesn’t get much love when things are going right. It’s just expected to be perfect. But it also gets a terrible amount of blame when anything goes wrong on special teams. Long snapper is not a desirable position. It became evident Saturday night that the change in long snapper has affected Tyler Davis. Two different snaps, subsequently the two that Davis missed, were either low to the ground or wide of Fessler’s reach.
But that’s not to say that the long snapper alone is to blame. If you slow down one of the kicks that Davis missed Saturday night, you can see that Fessler did a a good job of getting the ball to the ground, spotting it correctly, but he didn’t get it spun around in time, forcing Davis to kick the laces of the football. That’s a mistake that could eventually cost the Nittany Lions a game. The two missed field goals by Davis left six points on the board, and would have given Penn State that 21-19 lead prior to the final drive of the game, forcing Iowa to drive the length of the field and at least attempt a field goal.
The long snapper/holder/kicker transfer is one that needs to be clean almost 100 percent of the time, and so far in 2017, it hasn’t been. Special teams coordinator Charles Huff will need to continue to work with his group to ensure this doesn’t become a trend.
4. Iowa Is The Best Team In The Big Ten West Division
You, know, sometimes you have to go out on a limb when you’re chewing your fingernails to the stump watching your favorite team and alma mater go down to the wire in its first true test of the year. And this is me going out on a limb: Iowa is better than Wisconsin in the Big Ten West. While Wisconsin is still considered an odds-on favorite to win the division and play for the conference title game in December, I’m not sold that the West is a one team division just yet. While I’ll be the first to admit I was oversold on another West Division team (Northwestern) to challenge the Badgers for a division title, I am only human and have the right to change my opinion as other information emerges. And that information is that Iowa’s smothering defense and slow moving, methodical, lull you to sleep running style will win them nine or ten games this season. Outside of their matchup on the road at Wisconsin, the only other contestable game for the Hawkeyes this season is a home game against the Ohio State Buckeyes. If Iowa can win one of these two games, and close out on the remainder of the schedule with victories, they could easily finish the season at 10-2 with two conference loses. Wisconsin will avoid Penn State and Ohio State this season, but will have to go up against Michigan at home. If Iowa can beat Wisconsin and the Badgers lose to Michigan, it’ll be Iowa we see in Indianapolis this winter. It’s not a foregone conclusion by any means, but I’ll take that defense led by Josey Jewell and Anthony Nelson and Akrum Wadley running behind that massive offensive line.
Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports