Penn State Nittany Lions at Iowa Hawkeyes
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City, Iowa
TV/Radio: 6ABC; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)
Records: Penn State, 5-0, 2-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 10 in AP poll; Iowa, 4-1, 1-1, No. 17.
Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 50-21; 74-36 overall). Iowa, Kirk Ferentz (21st season, 156-102; 168-123 overall).
Series: Penn State leads, 16-12. The Nittany Lions won last year’s meeting, 30-24, at Beaver Stadium, saved by an interception from Nick Scott at their 2-yard line with just over 3 minutes remaining.
The numbers from last week’s games stood out in large type: Penn State sacked Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer 10 times, while Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley went down eight times at the hands of the Michigan pass rush.
Certainly the Iowa coaching staff addressed the protection problem this week, but the Lions have something good going, sparked by their edge rushers, Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos, who have combined for 10 ½ in their first five games.
“Our goal every game is to step out and sack the quarterback when he drops back,” Toney said this week. “We all know that’s unrealistic. That just has to be in their mind when the quarterback drops back, that you have to get there, whether there’s one, two, three, six, seven, or 11 of us. We have to get the quarterback to the ground when he drops back.”
The Hawkeyes could try to get their running game going again. They were credited with 1 yard rushing last week because the sacks accounted for 65 yards in losses. But they’re going to need something to make sure they’re not one-dimensional.
Whose defense is better?
In a Big Ten Conference full of stout defenses, Penn State and Iowa are among the best of them.
The Nittany Lions haven’t allowed more than 13 points in any game and average 7.4 points yielded, second in the nation. The Hawkeyes are right behind them in third place at 8.8. In total defense, they are fourth (Penn State 240.4 yards per game) and fifth (Iowa 254.2).
Probably the biggest factor in Saturday night’s game will be which defense can force the other team to turn the ball over. Each has seven takeaways in its first five games. This is a chance for the Lions to up that number by more than one or two.
Clifford’s first real test
Sure, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford played in a hostile environment last month and passed with near-perfect grades, as did his teammates, dominating Maryland in such a way that Terrapins fans departed and some players seemed to want to follow them out the exits.
But this is going to be different. The Hawkeyes will be the Lions’ first ranked opponent of the season, playing at their home venue in front of a sellout crowd that is right on top of the action. The fact that Iowa fans will be participating in a “Stripe Out” will charge the atmosphere even more.
The Lions played the music loud at their practices this week because Franklin wants it to be louder there than it will be at Kinnick. But the key is for Clifford and the offense to keep their poise and focus, as head coach James Franklin likes to say, on “one play at a time.”
Lingering distractions from “the letter”
The Lions’ week started with the release of, and reaction to, the letter critical of sophomore safety Jonathan Sutherland for his dreadlocks. Sutherland’s teammates rallied to his defense, and Franklin gave a heartfelt statement about Sutherland’s character and how football brings people together, or is supposed to.
Asked Tuesday about the controversy being a distraction, Franklin thought it would not be a problem because his team will “keep things as consistent as we possibly can.” We really won’t know until the ball is kicked off.
Lions’ featured runner is...
The four-running-back look continues into Game 6. Freshman Noah Cain had the big game last week with 105 yards against Purdue. Will he start, or come in second? Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne likes the spirit and togetherness in the running backs room, but one wonders how the Lions can continue to keep everyone happy.