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Penn State’s mission in Iowa: Protect the football, and take it away

The Hawkeyes lead the nation with 16 forced turnovers over five weeks but the Nittany Lions have done a good job with nine. Penn State is also second in the nation defending its red zone.

Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher (97) has been creating havoc for opposing offenses.
Penn State defensive tackle PJ Mustipher (97) has been creating havoc for opposing offenses.Read moreBarry Reeger / AP

Most college football observers marvel at Iowa and its knack for forcing turnovers — 16 at last count, including 12 interceptions, the best in both categories in the Football Bowl Subdivision through five weeks.

But the Penn State defense hasn’t been too shabby either in the takeaway category or keeping its opponents off the scoreboard. The unit has forced nine turnovers (seven interceptions) and its plus-6 turnover margin is tied for 12th.

As James Franklin noted about the matchup between the No. 3 Hawkeyes and the No. 4 Nittany Lions on Saturday at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, “I think everybody knows that’s the story line of this game, right?”

“Turnovers equate to winning as much as anything, turnovers and explosive plays,” the head coach said Tuesday on his Zoom conference call. “When you can do that, you’re going to help your team play and you’re going to put yourself in a position to play the game for a long time.

“That’s the thing [the Hawkeyes] are doing right now that makes them special. It impacts their entire team. It helps defensive statistics because they get off the field. It helps offensive statistics because they create short fields and scoring opportunities. That’s going to be the story of the game, us continuing to do a great job of protecting the football, and for us to create a few [turnovers], too.”

» READ MORE: Penn State rushing game remains inconsistent in short-yardage situations

Iowa has scored 75 points off its takeaways to Penn State’s 17, but the Nittany Lions haven’t allowed any points off their three turnovers.

The Lions also have impressed defensively in the red zone. Opponents have made 15 trips to or inside the Penn State 20 and have come away with touchdowns only five times. Add three field goals and the red-zone scores number 8 of 15 for 53.3%, second best in the country.

Overall, Penn State has allowed 12.0 points per game, third in the FBS and second only to Iowa (11.6) in the Big Ten. Defensive end Nick Tarburton said the leadership on the defensive side is a major reason for the unit’s excellent play.

“I think that plays a huge part,” said Tarburton, who starred at Pennridge High School. “Obviously once you get on that field, you have to look to the guys to your right and to your left, and you have to trust them each and every play to do their job. I think honestly it just increases that so much when you have that type bond. I feel like we’re executing to a high standard, and we just have to continue to do so.”

Turnovers equate to winning as much as anything, turnovers and explosive plays.

James Franklin

The battles in the trenches will play a significant role Saturday, especially given the fact that neither team has rushed very well. Penn State is 11th in the Big Ten in rush offense and averages 3.79 yards per carry, while the Hawkeyes are 12th and average 3.37.

“Kind of how we approach this week is, obviously, we’ve got to stop the run, make them one-dimensional,” Tarburton said. “Ultimately, if we do that, I think good things will happen for us … get them into those tough situations where they have to throw the ball.”

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

The big duel inside matches Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum, a 6-foot-3, 290-pound junior and preseason All-American who will be making his 27th consecutive start, against Penn State senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher, who is a handful at 6-4 and 326 pounds when he lines up on the nose.

“Their center is as good as I’ve seen,” Franklin said, “his athleticism, his ability to pull and run and get out on the edge, the mentality he plays with, it’s really impressive. So that’s going to be an interesting matchup and battle throughout the game. I’ve got a ton of respect for both of them. I think [the matchup] will play a big part in this game and who’s successful and who’s not.”