STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State has been playing college football for 134 years, and in only 22 of those seasons did they ever lose as many as five games.
However, when the Nittany Lions take the field Saturday against Iowa at Beaver Stadium, they are in danger of extending their poor start to 0-5 for the first time in their long football history.
The Hawkeyes (2-2) are a 2½-point favorite seeking to break a long losing streak of their own – six games to the Nittany Lions, with their last win coming in 2010.
Here are a few things to look for:
Who will be Penn State’s starting quarterback?
Redshirt junior Sean Clifford has started 16 of the Lions’ last 17 games but was pulled from last week’s game at Nebraska early in the second quarter after two costly turnovers. Redshirt sophomore Will Levis came on and completed 14 of 31 passes for 219 yards but had problems navigating his team in the red zone, especially in the fourth quarter.
The decision might come down to confidence. Clifford has accounted for eight of the Nittany Lions’ nine turnovers (six interceptions, two lost fumbles) in the first four weeks and made some poor decisions in his short stint against the Cornhuskers. Where is his confidence level, and what is the team’s confidence in him?
“Will has played some good football in the past,” head coach James Franklin said, “whether it’s coming in [last season] against Ohio State when Sean got hurt, or whether it was coming in last week in the second half and doing some good things. Sean has got a history of doing good things as well.
“So I think there are two guys that the team trusts, and that we’re going to need both of them.”
Pretending it’s the second half for four quarters
With the Hawkeyes known on offense for grinding it out and long drives, the Nittany Lions can’t afford to be coming back from a double-digit hole at halftime as they have in each of the first four weeks. The margins at the break have been 21 points the last two games.
However, the Lions did a fine job of moving the ball against Maryland and Nebraska in the second half. Last week, they outscored the Cornhuskers, 17-3, in the second half and outgained them 310-95. Yet they still weren’t able to get over the hump, which is why a fast start this week is critical.
“We’ve got to come out strong and we’ve got to come out with a complete focus on what we’ve got to do, and do it extremely well,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher said. “I keep saying it but that’s the bottom line, we’ve got to play winning football in the first half.”
Curing the red-zone blues
The statistic is incredible: Penn State ran 25 plays in the red zone last week and pushed it in for a touchdown only once. Levis had all but three of the snaps, but he clearly wasn’t sharp, maybe because he had fewer reps than Clifford during that week of practice.
Only Franklin knows how many reps each of his quarterbacks took this week, and hopes that the quarterbacks will be more precise no matter which one plays.
The old-school Hawkeyes
Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz is the longest-tenured active head coach in FBS, now in his 22nd season. He has resisted the temptation to run spread formations and jet sweeps and zone reads by his quarterback. He likes to run the football, play sound defense, and outplay his opponent on special teams.
The Hawkeyes have rushed for 183 yards per game, with Tyler Goodson (93.8 yards per game, third in the Big Ten) carrying most of the load behind an offensive line that is in the top 12 nationally in fewest sacks and tackles for loss allowed. Defensively, they are eighth in FBS in points allowed (14.8 per game) and have eight interceptions, three by free safety Jack Koerner.
They also have the nation’s best net punting mark behind Tory Taylor (45.8 yards per punt) and a dangerous punt returner in Charlie Jones, who has a 54-yard touchdown return to his credit.
And a word about masks
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued new guidance for masks this week, but Penn State said its football team will not have to wear them during the game.
“As has been the case throughout the pandemic, the health, safety and well-being of our student-athletes and staff is paramount,” a university statement said. “The Governor’s new orders include limited exceptions for competition to be played without face coverings in the context of rigorous and stringent university and Big Ten testing, health and safety protocols. All other gameday personnel have been required to wear masks, and we will continue to enforce this guideline at our event.”