By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The F-35 fighter jets performing a flyover, the alternate uniforms, the color-coordinated crowd performing the wave, the evening kickoff, and of course, the intriguing matchup on the field between two nationally ranked teams; Kinnick Stadium will be the setting for something special on Saturday.
Penn State is coming to town, undefeated, ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll and led by a defense that has only allowed 37 points in five games.
The game will be televised by ABC and it’s the ninth annual America Needs Farmers game.
It’ll likely be chilly, with night-time temperatures expected to dip in the 30s, but this is Big Ten football under the lights, and with one of the most storied programs in the history of college football as the guest, so a little cold weather shouldn't be an issue.
The wind could be an issue, but that would impact both teams.
From an atmosphere standpoint, the Iowa Athletic Department has taken care of everything to assure that Saturday’s football game isn’t just a game, but an event.
You can bet, actually you can bet, that the Penn State players are fully aware of the hostile ambiance at Kinnick Stadium where Hawkeye fans have the privilege of sitting incredibly close to the playing field, thanks to how the stadium is configured.
This has all the makings of a classic milestone moment for Iowa, with only one thing left to do, but that’s the hard part.
Penn State is undefeated for a reason, actually for lots of reasons, including an aggressive defense that leads the Big Ten with 25 sacks in five games.
“We are playing a team that's a Top-10 football team and certainly worthy of that,” said Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz. “They are playing with great confidence and momentum. They come in here, they are really doing well, typical of any Penn State team we have played through the years. They are well-coached. They have good athletes, good players at every position, and you know, certainly very, very impressive in what they have done thus far.”
Penn State had uncertainty at quarterback heading into the season with the graduation of three-year starter Trace McSorley, but Sean Clifford’s performance behind center probably has been the team’s biggest storyline this season.
Clifford has passed for at least 200 yards in each of Penn States five games.
“I think maybe as impressive as anything right now, they graduated a tremendous player, competitor at the quarterback position, and this guy has jumped in and done a really nice job,” Ferentz said of Clifford. “That doesn't seem to be a big issue for them right now.”
Iowa strong safety Geno Stone, who is from Pennsylvania, praised Clifford for his versatility.
"He definitely throws the ball really well, he'll put it out there, he also runs the ball well, too," Stone said. "He's not McSorley, but he's still a dynamic quarterback to be able to do that. So I feel like he's really been running their offense very well so far."
The Iowa secondary is expected to be at close to full strength on Saturday with cornerback Matt Hankins returning to practice this week after having missed the previous three games.
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Protecting the quarterback was a big issue for Iowa during last Saturday’s 10-3 loss at Michigan, and the end result was eight sacks and a sobering defeat.
Iowa had no answer for Michigan’s barrage of blitzes, so look for Penn State to launch a similar attack on Saturday.
“I think playing Penn State this week is probably one of the best things that could happen for us because we know it’s going to be a game probably very similar to last week,” said Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley. “We know it’s going to be tough.
“Hopefully, we score a lot of points. But if it doesn’t go that way, hey, we were in a game just like it last week and we know what we need to do in that type of situation.”
It is no secret that Penn State likes to blitz, so combine that with Iowa’s offensive line having been a sieve last week at Michigan and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what is coming on Saturday, which is one Penn State defender after another.
“It is a big part of their defensive package, and especially with some of the struggles that we had last week, I think they’re going to try and exploit some of those weaknesses,” Stanley said.
The Iowa offensive players have had week to look closely at went wrong at Michigan and to fix it.
Maybe they aren’t as good as originally thought, or maybe the dysfunction on offense at Michigan was simply a case of growing pains, or an aberration.
I had Michigan winning by four points heading into last Saturday’s game against Iowa in Ann Arbor, Mich., and location had a lot to do with that pick.
Just like it does in picking Iowa to defeat Penn State by four points in this game.
That’s my feeling at this point, Iowa winning by less than a touchdown.
You could tell after the Michigan game that the Iowa offensive players felt that they had letdown the defensive players by only scoring three points..
Nobody on either side actually came out and said it, but that was the vibe.
The defense had done its part to win, but the offense failed to hold up its end of the deal.
Stanley and his cohorts have had to live with that frustration all week, but now comes a chance for redemption in a game that has all the trimmings.
It would sure help if Iowa could run the ball, but the Nittany Lions only allow 50.6 rushing yards per game, so good luck with that.
And, of course, turnovers are always a concern, but maybe Iowa got that out of its system last Saturday with the four turnovers against Michigan.
Iowa also had eight penalties against Michigan, so we can assume that eliminating mistakes was a focal point during this week’s preparation for Penn State.
Penn State has a 16-12 advantage in the series, and has won the last five games in a row, including the last two by a combined eight points, after having lost eight of nine games against Iowa from 2000 to 2010.
Ferentz didn't have an answer when asked on Tuesday why the series has flipped so dramatically, but he mentioned the close scores in the last two games.
Penn State won 30-24 at Beaver Stadium last season and 21-19 in 2017 at Kinnick Stadium.
"The last two years have gone right down to the last series, basically," Ferentz said. "Our challenge right now is to make it a close game and then figure out a way to win and that's the challenge in front of us."
The thing with the Michigan loss that we don’t know is whether it was a wake-up call, an aberration, or a sign of trouble to come.
Or maybe it was none of those things because each game is unique in itself.
I just think that Iowa will find a way to win at home thanks to a big boost from the atmosphere inside Kinnick Stadium, and because of its veteran leadership on both sides of the ball.
It might seem a little premature to call a game on Oct. 12th a must-win, but it’s close to being that for Iowa if it wants to accomplish anything special.
Prediction: Iowa 21, Penn State 17
Iowa vs. Penn State
When: Saturday, 6:44 p.m.
Where: Kinnick Stadium
Records/rankings: Penn State is 5-0, 2-0 in the Big Ten and ranked 10th in the Associated Press poll. Iowa is 401, 1-1 and ranked 17th in the Assoiciated Press poll.
Series: Penn State leads 16-12 and has won the last five games, including the last two by a combined eight points.
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