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Hostile Iowa fans await Penn State in Big Ten showdown with playoff implications

It's a matchup of Top 5 Big Ten teams that doesn't include Ohio State, for a change.

Can Penn State get its running game going? Noah Cain (21) will be key.
Can Penn State get its running game going? Noah Cain (21) will be key.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

The front-row lower-level seats between the 30-yard lines at Kinnick Stadium are thisclose to the player benches, which empowers some fans to initiate conversations with members of the visiting team that are either well-meaning or bent on distracting them.

“I had times when they yelled out my number, ‘Hey, No. 5!’ ” said Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields, who is making his third trip to Iowa City. “They’re so close that conversations are going to happen, them talking to us. It’s definitely a tough place to play because of how close they are.

“Every year I get a chance to go there, I’m excited because of the environment they have and their fans. But I try not to have conversations. I try to be locked in all the time.”

A sellout crowd of close to 70,000 will be witnessing the rare matchup of two Big Ten teams that are ranked in the top five, and one of them is not Ohio State. This is the 11th time in program history that the Nittany Lions are playing a game with both teams in the top five, and the first since 1999 when they defeated No. 4 Arizona, 41-7, as the nation’s No. 3 team.

» READ MORE: Chemistry between Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson fueling undefeated Penn State’s success

Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, the dean of FBS head coaches now in his 23rd season leading the Hawkeyes’ program, certainly appreciates the supportive crowd, but he wants his players to focus solely on the opponent.

“We’re going to have a great environment,” he said. “One thing we told our players, just like last week, the fans don’t play the game. It’s up to us to make sure we get ready. We’re going to have to be at our best for this game.”

What to expect

More turnovers? Iowa attracted national attention last week when it forced seven turnovers at Maryland, a stunner when you consider the Terrapins went into the game undefeated, leading the Big Ten in passing yardage, and playing at home. For the season, the numbers are 16 takeaways including 12 interceptions, and 75 points scored off turnovers, which is more than 45% of the Hawkeyes’ total points. Penn State enters the game with three turnovers; it has yet to lose a fumble and Sean Clifford has thrown three interceptions – one in each of his last three games.

Run, run, run. The Lions (132.6 yards per game) and the Hawkeyes (126.0) combine for two of the four worst rushing offense totals in the Big Ten. Last week, Penn State gained 209 yards rushing against Indiana, only the second time in its first five games it’s been in triple digits, and James Franklin has talked often this week about the need to establish a running game. Iowa’s offensive numbers are a little skewed because of the times they’ve started drives after a takeaway in the opponent’s territory. However, the Hawkeyes believe in a ball-control offense, which means a lot of rushing and the occasional play-action pass.

The other guys

Spencer for hire. Junior Spencer Petras is not considered a top-tier Big Ten quarterback, but he gets the job done. He accounted for five touchdowns (three passing, two running) in last week’s 51-14 obliteration of Maryland. On the season, he is completing 62% of his throws and averaging 188.6 yards per game. He isn’t much of a runner – 10 attempts not counting sacks. His favorite target is redshirt freshman tight end Sam LaPorta (22 catches, 263 yards, two TDs), and he has a versatile back in 199-pound junior Tyler Goodson, who is sixth in the conference in rushing with 430 yards and last week had a 67-yard touchdown reception.

» READ MORE: Is Penn State a top-five team? | Mike Jensen

Lots of pickers. You’ve heard about Iowa’s 12 interceptions, let us introduce you to some of the interceptors. Senior Riley Moss opened the season with two pick-sixes against Indiana and leads the team with three interceptions. Senior Matt Hankins and junior Dane Belton, a linebacker, have two apiece. The Hawkeyes also have returned a fumble for a touchdown. Linebacker Jack Campbell, a 6-5, 243-pound junior, is third in the Big Ten in tackles at 9.2 per game. The defense ranks second nationally in points allowed (11.6 per game), third in rush defense (87.0 yards per game), and seventh in total defense (271.4).

Keys to the game

Imposing its will. This will be an old-style game, rock ‘em, sock ‘em football matching the second- and third-stingiest defenses in the country when it comes to points allowed. It could be a case of first team to 20 wins. The Hawkeyes will try to control the football and let their defense and special teams try to establish the best field position possible. The Nittany Lions will try to establish the run but won’t be shy about trying to hit a number of explosive plays without carelessly throwing the football into coverage. As Lions QB Sean Clifford said Wednesday, “We’re going to play our brand of football, and they’re going to play theirs. And we’ll see who wins.”

Oozing with confidence. Iowa comes in with an 11-game win streak, two more than the Lions. The average win margin during that streak is 21.6 points for the Hawkeyes, 18.0 points for Penn State. The Lions have scored in 18 consecutive quarters and are coming off their first shutout since 2019, last week’s 24-0 blanking of Indiana. Penn State has a chance if Jordan Stout can back up the Hawkeyes with his punting, leaving Iowa with a long field to navigate, and avoid turnovers. A break either way likely will decide it.


Iowa 20, Penn State 17

No. 4 Penn State at No. 3 Iowa

Saturday at 4 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa

  1. TV/Radio: Fox 29; WCAU-AM (1210)

  2. Line: Iowa by 1½.

  3. Records: Penn State, 5-0, 2-0 Big Ten; Iowa, 5-0, 2-0.

  4. Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (eighth season, 65-28); Iowa, Kirk Ferentz (23rd season, 173-106).

  5. Series: Penn State leads, 17-13. Iowa broke a six-game losing streak last season with a 41-21 win at Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions have won three straight at Kinnick.