By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Iowa and Penn State are ranked third and fourth in the Associated Press poll, respectively, for a bunch of reasons that have contributed to both teams being 5-0.
So much goes into a building a team and Iowa and Penn State both are showing signs of being elite heading into Saturday’s much-anticipated game at Kinnick Stadium.
But which team is better equipped to win on Saturday?
Which team is likely to make more mistakes?
And which team is more likely to take advantage of mistakes?
Here’s an up-close look at the nine positions that will help to answer those questions and determine Saturday’s outcome.
Quarterback: Penn State junior Sean Clifford is more versatile than Iowa junior Spencer Petras, is more productive from a statistical standpoint, and more experienced as a three-year starter. So, it’s easy to say he should have the advantage over Petras.
But Clifford has also been erratic in big moments, enough to where he was benched for a stretch last season.
When’s Clifford is playing well, he can be dynamic, whereas Petras is more of a game manager, although, he has shown recently that he can makes big plays.
The best thing Petras does is protect he football. And that’ll be his best answer for Clifford’s versatility and erratic play at times.
Clifford in one of just four Penn State players to reach 6,500 total yards.
Advantage: Penn State
Running back: Both teams have made it almost halfway through the regular season undefeated despite having mediocre rushing attacks.
Penn State is ranked 11th in the Big Ten rushing and one spot ahead of Iowa with averages of 132.6 and 126 yards, respectively.
But a lot goes into a running game and this category is about running backs only and Tyler Goodson gives Iowa a slight edge.
Goodson is ranked sixth in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 86 yards a game. He also has scored rushing five touchdowns, and he had 67-yard touchdown catch against Maryland last Friday.
Penn State’s leading rusher, on the other hand, is Noah Cain, who averages just 37.4 yards per game.
Wide receiver: Kirk Ferentz couldn’t say enough good things about Jahan Dotson when addressing the media on Tuesday. The explosive junior leads Penn State with 35 catches for 446 yards and six touchdowns.
Dotson is considered one the best receivers in college football, and trying to contain him will be a huge challenge for Iowa’s veteran secondary.
But he’s hardly a solo act.
Parker Washington has 25 catches for 331 yards and two touchdowns, while KeAndre Lambert-Smith has 13 catches for 224 yards and one touchdown that covered 83 yards.
Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. both lead the Iowa receivers with 11 catches apiece for 132 and 79 yards, respectively.
Advantage: Penn State
Iowa junior Sam LaPorta is one of the most productive tight ends in the Big Ten with 22 catches for 263 yards and two touchdowns. He has been Spencer Petras’ favorite target, and sort of a security blanket, this season and throughout last season.
LaPorta has a knack for getting open, and he excels at making touch catches and gaining yards after a catch.
Redshirt freshman Luke Lachey is also starting to emerge as a second option at tight end for Iowa, and he already excels as a blocker. He had downfield pancake block in last Friday’s win at Maryland on a catch by LaPorta,
Third-year sophomore Brenton Strange has started all five games for Penn State at tight end and has seven catches for 100 yards and two touchdowns. He had a career-high 71 yards on four catches and scored a touchdown in the win over Auburn.
Iowa has by far the most celebrated offensive linemen on either team in All-America junior center Tyler Linderbaum. But it takes more than one great player to make an offensive line click and Iowa has struggled to perform as a cohesive group as evidenced by the modest rushing statistics.
But the same could be said about Penn State’s offensive line.
Both groups still have lots of room for improvement. But Penn State’s offense averages nearly 100 yards more per game than Iowa’s offense.
Advantage: Penn State
Temple transfer Arnold Ebiketie has been a valuable addition for Penn State at defensive end. He has started all five games and has 22 tackles, three sacks and five tackles for loss. Ebiketie is explosive off the edge and keeping him away from Spencer Petras will be a priority for Iowa.
Senior tackle and team captain P.J. Mustipher gives Penn State another experienced player on the defensive line. He has played extensively since 2019 and was named to the Lombardi Award, Lott IMPACT Trophy and the Senior Bowl Watch Lists. He had six tackles in last Saturday’s 24-0 victory over Indiana.
Iowa also has a disruptive defensive end in fifth-year senior Zach VanValkenburg. He leads all the defensive linemen on the team with 17 tackles, and he also leads the team with five tackles for loss and with four quarterback hurries.
This was a very close call because both units have performed well.
Advantage: Penn State
Both linebacker units are performing at an extremely high level, making this another difficult choice. Penn State starters Brandon Smith, Ellis Brooks and Curtis Jacobs have combined for 78 tackles and seven tackles for loss. Smith has five tackles loss, one sack, two pass break ups and two quarterback hurries.
Iowa’s top three linebackers – Jack Campbell, Seth Benson and Jestin Jacobs – have combined for 107 tackles and rank first, second and third on the team in tackles, respectively.
Campbell is also ranked third in the Big Ten with 46 tackles. The Cedar Falls native had a career-high 18 tackles in the win over Colorado State in week four and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the week for that performance.
This was yet another close call between two talented and veteran defensive backfields.
Iowa cornerback Riley Moss and Penn State safety Ji’Ayir both are tied for first in the conference with three interceptions. Two of Moss’s interceptions were pick sixes in the season opener against Indiana.
Iowa cornerback Matt Hankins has two interceptions, as does Iowa safety Dane Belton.
Penn State cornerbacks Tariq Castro-Fields and Joey Porter both excel in pass coverage and are good tacklers in open field.
Iowa often uses five defensive backs and rarely does Iowa allow big plays in the passing game.
The Hawkeyes also lead the Big Ten with 12 interceptions, largely because of these guys.
Both teams feature standout punters who rank among the best in the Big Ten. Penn State’s Jordan Stout is averaging 48.5 yards on 24 punts, while Iowa sophomore Tory Taylor is averaging 47.3 yards on 31 punts. Taylor leads the conference with 1,465 punting yards.
Iowa appears to have the edge at kicker where senior Caleb Shudak has made 8-of-9 field-goal attempts this season, with his longest make from 51 yards.
Stout also kicks for Penn State, but he has missed three of his nine field-goal attempts this season.
Iowa also has the edge in the return game, thanks to Charlie Jones, who leads the conference with a 24.9 average on kick returns. Jones also leads the conference with 180 punt return yards.