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Iowa’s defense will pose a major problem for Penn State

The 17th-ranked Nittany Lions, seeking to end a two-game home losing streak, will face a Hawkeyes squad in the top five nationally in three major defensive categories.

Kirk Ferentz is in his 20th season at Iowa.
Kirk Ferentz is in his 20th season at Iowa.Read moreCharlie Neibergall / AP

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — The forecast for rain and cold on Saturday in Happy Valley means it's a good time for traditional Big Ten football, and few do it like Iowa and veteran head coach Kirk Ferentz.

The 18th-ranked Hawkeyes, who come to Beaver Stadium to play No. 17 Penn State, showed last week what they can do in wind and cold, limiting Maryland to 115 total yards in a 23-0 shutout in Iowa City.

With all-day rain and temperatures in the low 40s forecast for the game, the Iowa defense enters tied for second in the nation in rushing yards allowed (79.6 per game), third in total defense (258.1), and fifth in points given up (14.1). The unit has allowed just three rushing touchdowns, tied for first nationally.

It's all done under the guidance of Ferentz, who in his 20th season at Iowa, making him the longest-tenured head coach at one school in FBS. A win Saturday would be the 150th of his career with the Hawkeyes.

"It really sounds cliché, but it has really been a team effort," Ferentz said Tuesday. "We were young coming into the season at both corner and linebacker, but it just seems whoever's in there is playing pretty well, pretty steady. Everybody's kind of jumped in there and done a good job. I think the credit goes to the whole group collectively."

The Iowa front four averages a little more than 6-foot-6 and deflects its share of passes. Defensive end A.J. Epenesa, a 6-5, 275-pound sophomore, doesn't start but knows how to get to the quarterback, leading the team in sacks with six and in tackles for loss with seven.

Penn State coach James Franklin, whose team will be trying to break a two-game home losing streak, called the line "by far the best front that we have faced in two years.

"They are long. They are physical. They are stout," he said. "They make a bunch of plays. They do a really good job of not only being able to stop the run, but also being able to rush the passer and then also batting balls down. That will be a real challenge for our front."

That will also be a challenge for Nittany Lions junior Miles Sanders, who has rushed for 772 yards, third in the Big Ten, and averages 6.5 yards per carry.

"I think their front seven is really good overall," Sanders said. "The D-linemen are big and strong, so it's going to be a physical game up front. The defense really doesn't do too much stuff, they don't blitz a lot, but they're really disciplined and really well coached."

On offense, the Hawkeyes' top two receivers are tight ends: 6-4, 241-pound junior Noah Fant and 6-5, 250-pound sophomore T.J. Hockenson. They have combined for 51 catches, 736 yards, and nine touchdowns. Nate Stanley has 16 TD passes, second in the Big Ten.

Iowa also leads the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 30.9 yards, with Ihmir Smith-Marsette accounting for 33.3 yards per return.

The Nittany Lions played one game in the rain earlier this season, earning a 51-6 win at Pittsburgh despite gaining a season-low 390 yards. The Lions were aided by three turnovers.

Iowa at Penn State

Saturday, 3:30 p.m., Beaver Stadium

Records: Penn State, 5-2, 2-2 Big Ten, ranked No. 17 by the AP; Iowa, 6-1, 3-1, ranked No. 18.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (fifth season, 41-19); Iowa, Kirk Ferentz (20th season, 149-98).

TV/radio: ESPN; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440)

History: Penn State holds a 15-12 lead in the series and has defeated Iowa in each of the last two seasons. Trace McSorley directed an 80-yard drive in the final 1 minute, 42 seconds of last year's game in Iowa City and hit Juwan Johnson with a 7-yard touchdown pass as time ran out for a 21-19 victory.

Three things to watch

Iowa's tight ends vs. the Penn State secondary: The pass defense of the Nittany Lions has dropped from 29th in FBS to 68th over the past three games after allowing 895 yards through the air against Ohio State, Michigan State, and Indiana. Tackling in the secondary has been an issue, with opponents piling up yards after the catch. The Hawkeyes use their tight ends — Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson — as the primary options for quarterback Nate Stanley. Fant and Hockenson will catch their share of passes; the chief task for Penn State's cover people will be to bring them to the ground.

Will the Nittany Lions' young wide receivers play more?: Freshmen wideouts Jahan Dotson, Daniel George, and Justin Shorter saw their share of playing time in the second half last week after injuries to Juwan Johnson and K.J. Hamler. Without naming names or specifying injuries, Franklin said all the injured wide receivers have practiced this week, but it will be interesting to see if the three first-year players get some reps. With rain expected to fall throughout the game, the Lions will have to be fully focused on catching the football, a constant problem this season.

Special teams: The weather could put a special emphasis on the kicking game. The Nittany Lions need a more consistent performance from punter Blake Gillikin, who Franklin conceded was "in a little bit of a slump right now" after last week. The freshman kickers also will have to step up. Jake Pinegar went 2-for-2 on field goals last week but missed an extra point, a low kick that was blocked. Rafael Checa has boomed 28 of his 51 kickoffs for touchbacks and will have to keep that going because Iowa leads the nation in kickoff returns and because sophomore Ihmir Smith-Marsette averages 33.3 yards per return.