Opponent preview: Penn State Nittany Lions

Hawkeye Headquarters

FILE – Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford (14) passes against Indiana in the first half of their NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., in this Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, file photo. The key matchup in fourth-ranked Penn State’s showdown with No. 3 Iowa pits the Nittany Lions’ passing combo of Sean Clifford and Jahan Dotson against a defense that leads the nation with 12 interceptions.(AP Photo/Barry Reeger, File)

 

Another week, another big game for the Hawkeyes. Though when No. 4 Penn State (5-0) rolls into town this week, it will be the biggest one.

There’s plenty of history between these two teams, having met 30 times in the past. And there’s been some especially good ones under Kirk Ferentz.

For the past seven seasons, he’s looked over at James Franklin on the opposing sideline. For the most part, Franklin has had his number, winning four of their five meetings. Last year, the Hawkeyes got their first win over the Nittany Lions since 2010.

So obviously Franklin’s time at Penn State has been successful. He’s won a conference title and a couple New Year Six bowls since taking over. Losing has not been common either, as last season’s shortened campaign was his first losing one at Penn State.

Results

Win at No. 12 Wisconsin, 16-10
Win vs Ball State, 44-13
Win vs No. 22 Auburn, 28-20
Win vs Villanova, 38-17
Win vs Indiana, 24-0
*Common opponents in bold

Here’s what to expect for this colossal game this Saturday.

Series Quick Facts

Number of games: 30
First meeting: November 15, 1930; Iowa 19-0
Last meeting: November 21, 2020; Iowa 41-21
All-time series: Penn State, 17-13
Current win streak: Iowa, 1 (2020)
Longest win streak: Penn State, 6 (2011-2019)

Significant Penn State Stats

Passing Offense: 286 yards/game (26th nationally)
Scoring Defense: 12 points/game (3rd nationally)
Turnover Margin per game: 1.2 (13th nationally)
Redzone Defense: 53 percent TD rate (2nd nationally)
Rushing Offense: 132.6 yards/game (93rd nationally)

Stat Leaders

Passing: Sean Clifford (QB), 1,336 yards, 11 TDs, 3 INTs
Rushing: Noah Cain (RB), 187 yards, 3 TDs
Receiving: Jahan Dotson (WR), 35 catches, 446 yards, 6 TDs
Tackles: Brandon Smith (LB), 32
Interceptions: Ji’Ayir Brown (S), 3

Offense

The Penn State offense isn’t the most explosive group the Hawkeyes have faced this year, but individually they have some of the best talent.

It starts with a player who Coach Ferentz says may be the most talented they’ve seen: senior receiver Jahan Dotson.

“I’m as impressed with No. 5 as anybody we’ve seen this year,” he said. “I say that with all due respect, we’ve played against some really good players so far, but he’s outstanding.”

His athletic ability is second to none, but there are a lot of good athletes in college football. It’s the way he’s harnessed that ability that makes him so special.

“You just watch him play, there’s no wasted movement,” Ferentz said. “He’s concise. Everything is really sharp. I have to think the pro guys watching him, have to like him. He’s a really decisive player. He’s a talented player, but he’s also a really good football player.”

The speedster has 446 yards and 6 touchdowns through five games so far this season. That’ll make for an interesting matchup with a Hawkeyes’ secondary that’s shut down nearly every receiver they’ve seen this season.

He’s not the only weapon though.

“The receiver core is probably as good as I’ve seen,” coach Ferentz said.

They also have a couple sophomores in Parker Washington and KeAndre Lambert-Smith who have 331 and 224 yards respectively. There’s also a pair of tight ends who have cracked 100 yards.

The Hawkeyes have faced a pretty impressive list of quarterbacks this season, including a number of all-conference selections. They’ve promptly sat all of them on the bench.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford is next up. He may not be notably more talented than the other QBs on the Hawkeyes’ sit list, but this is his fifth season, so that experience is what sets him apart.

“He’s an experienced quarterback just like everyone else, but I think he’s probably a little more calm in the pocket,” junior safety Kaveon Merriweather said.

That poise has been on full display this season. He’s only turned the ball over once in Penn State’s two ranked games this season. The other stats are just as impressive. He’s top-20 in the country in passing yards, touchdowns and QB rating.

“He puts the ball in only places his receivers can get to it,” Merriweather said.

Clifford is also a “dangerous runner” according to Coach Ferentz. He’s been known to make plays outside the pocket. That’s something the Hawkeye defense has seen plenty of that this season. The difference is Clifford will run by design.

“Last year, they ran a lot of quarterback runs on us, during that first and second drive and that hurt is a little bit,” Merriweather said. “We have to make sure we keep him in the pocket.”

The offensive line is big and experienced. The returners have combined for 71 career starts. In that group are a couple of Outland Trophy Watch Listers in redshirt junior Rasheed Walker and redshirt senior Mike Miranda. The other three are three seniors and a redshirt sophomore who already has 12 career starts. They’ve only allowed eight sacks all season.

Though a story by our sister station WTAJ says the offensive line is has struggled at time this year, especially running the ball.

Speaking of running, there’s not a ton to speak about in the way of running backs. Penn State is towards the bottom of the nation in rushing yards and their leading rusher, junior Noah Cain, only has 187 yards at 3.2 yards per carry. The backup Keyvone Lee still has a low yards total at just 174, but has done it at a 6.2 yards per carry clip.

As a whole, this Penn State team only has committed three turnovers this year. The Hawkeye lead the nation in takeaways. Just another interesting dichotomy this weekend at Kinnick Stadium.

Defense

The Penn State defense has not been getting the attention the Iowa squad has, but statistically, it’s been nearly as good. They’re allowing just 12 points per game. That’s just .4 points more than Iowa’s allowing.

They’re not too bad in the turnover department either. They’ve forced nine on the season; one in every game. Senior safety Ji’Ayir Brown leads the team in that department with three picks.

“Aggressive with their approach,” Ferentz said. “High-pressure team. A lot of movement. Then most importantly they got good players and they play hard.”

There are seniors all over the defense. The only place with any kind of notable youth is the secondary where a couple of sophomores and a freshman have seen time.

They’ve been one of the stingiest redzone defenses in the country, ranking second in that category. Last week they stopped Indiana in both of their trips inside the 20. The key to that has been that continuity and experience.

“It’s the type of deal where we’ve played this coordinator more than a few times, so a lot of it is going to come down to execution,” Spencer Petras said.

A lot of the guys from the tape last year are showing up on this year’s tape and they always have a bunch of great athletes,” Sam LaPorta said. “The tape from the last five games and last year is really helping us a lot.”

Senior defensive tackle PJ Mustipher anchors the defensive line, earning multiple preseason honors. Temple transfer and fellow senior Arnold Ebiketie has been one of the most disruptive, leading the team in sacks with three.

There are a number of other distinguished players on the defense. Linebackers Jesse Luketa and Brandon Smith are both on the Butkus Award Watch List. Smith is the team’s leading tackler. Safety Jaquan Brisker was a preseason second team all-American and senior corner Tariq Castro-Fields has been an all-conference selection the last two years.

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