5 things to watch in Penn State-Iowa game
The No. 17 Nittany Lions (5-2) take on No. 18 Iowa (6-1) in Happy Valley at 3:30 p.m. Saturday. Here are five things you should keep an eye on.
No mo’ Josey
What most remember about Penn State’s thrilling 21-19 win over Iowa last year was Juwan Johnson’s game-winning catch and Saquon Barkley’s 358 all-purpose yards. But man, Iowa linebacker Josey Jewell played like a man possessed. The Big Ten’s leading tackler racked up 16 stops, three tackles for loss, two breakups, an interception and a fumble recovery.
However, he’s no longer a Hawkeye. Jewell is with the Denver Broncos, and that’s good news for the Nittany Lions.
Linebacker Kristian Welch and safety Jake Gervase are Iowa’s leading tacklers with 40 apiece. Through six games alone last year, Jewell had 68 stops. Of course, it’s a bit unfair to compare any Iowa ‘backer to Jewell, who ranks fourth in program history in tackles. And Penn State running back Miles Sanders complimented the Hawkeyes’ linebackers on Wednesday night, too, so they have that going for them.
But Iowa’s defense is spearheaded by its front four, namely pass-rushers Anthony Nelson and A.J. Epenesa. And without Jewell, the unit can be had at the second level.
Back in August at Penn State’s media day, defensive end Shaka Toney let everyone know that the defense set a goal of 50 sacks for the 2018 season. And believe it or not, the Nittany Lions are close to being on pace.
Penn State has 25 sacks through seven games. If the Nittany Lions keep that pace -- with five regular-season games and a bowl trip ahead -- they’ll finish the season with around 46 or 47. And coming off a six-sack performance at Indiana (four from Toney, two by Yetur Gross-Matos), Penn State’s pass rush is in good form going into Saturday.
But it’s going to be tough to improve on that sack total against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have allowed just nine sacks this year, fourth-fewest in the country, and only two of those have come in four Big Ten games. Iowa has always been anchored by its big boys up front, and 2018 is no different. The Hawkeyes’ left side is particularly impressive, with guard Ross Reynolds and tackle Alaric Jackson making Pro Football Focus’ midseason All-Big Ten second team.
Toney, Gross-Matos and Shareef Miller will have their hands full.
Penn State and Iowa’s kicking games are in completely different places right now.
The Nittany Lions are trotting out true freshman Jake Pinegar, who is 6 of 10 on the year. The Iowa native is 0 for 3 on attempts 40 yards or longer, has yet to try a 50-yarder and had an extra point blocked last weekend. Penn State has gone for it on fourth down more frequently this year because of the shaky kicking game.
Meanwhile, Iowa is confident in its guy with reason. Senior placekicker Miguel Recinos is 10 of 13 through seven games, converted 11 of 13 tries in 2017 and has hit all seven attempts from the 40-49 range over the last two seasons.
If neither team can finish on Saturday, the kicking advantage goes to Iowa.
Long plays lacking
Iowa’s offense is an improved unit. Junior quarterback Nate Stanley’s completion percentage is up from 55.8 in 2017 to 60.7, tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson present a problem, and the Hawkeyes are averaging 37.7 points per game over their last three weeks.
But Kirk Ferentz’s team isn’t getting into the second level often. The Hawkeyes rank 97th in the country with 92 plays of 10 yards or more. Only 32 of them have come on the ground (96th in the nation).
Clearly, Iowa misses Akrum Wadley -- one of the most underrated Big Ten backs of the last half-decade. Wadley had 12 rushes of 20 yards or more in 2017. The only Big Ten players with more? Saquon Barkley, Wisconsin’s Johnathan Taylor and Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins.
Now, Iowa features a backfield of Toren Young, Mekhi Sargeant and Ivory Kelly-Martin. On 229 combined carries, only two have gone for 20 yards or more.
If you haven’t checked your weather app and plan on tailgating, you might want to do that. Accuweather is calling for periods of rain and a high of 40 degrees on Saturday.
That could affect Penn State and Iowa’s passing prospects, and the Nittany Lions are used to crappy conditions by now. Trace McSorley was limited to 145 passing yards in the rain at Pitt on Sept. 8 and managed 220 yards throwing into 21-mph winds at Indiana.
And of course, the game will be played almost 14 years to the day of Penn State and Iowa’s infamous 6-4 game back in 2004.
For everyone’s viewing purposes, let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.