Penn State Football

Nittany Lions ready for road warrior Hawkeyes

AP

It’s a rare thing to see given today’s college football climate.

Kirk Ferentz has been at the helm in Iowa City for a long, long time — so long that he’s the second-longest tenured head coach in college football behind only Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops.

Ferentz, 61, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, either; the four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year inked a new contract extension in September that’ll keep him with the Hawkeyes until 2026.

If history is any indication, that isn’t great news for Penn State. Ferentz owns an 8-4 record over the Nittany Lions, including four consecutive wins while Penn State was ranked.

“Consistency at the top is important,” Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said. “He always puts out an Iowa team that you have to be ready for.”

Penn State will be looking to change that recent history this weekend. The No. 12 Nittany Lions (6-2, 4-1 Big Ten) host the Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Beaver Stadium.

Penn State, riding a four-game winning streak, opened as 7-point favorites and hopes to halt Iowa’s nine-game unbeaten run on the road.

Offense

With 638 all-purpose yards and 7.51 yards per touch over the past four games, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley has further broken out, showcasing his shape-shifting ability on a consistent basis.

Like most in the college football world, Iowa’s coach has taken notice.

“Oh boy, I don’t know where to start,” Ferentz told reporters at his weekly press conference, when asked what makes Barkley so effective. “He’s tough and strong, start with that, and he can run. And you might think you have him. Looked like Minnesota had him contained. Not bottled up, but contained, and then boom, he makes the biggest play of the game (a 25-yard, game-winning touchdown run in overtime). That’s what great players do. They have you on edge every play of the game.”

The Hawkeyes were effective a couple of weeks ago against Wisconsin’s Corey Clement. One of the more electric players in the Big Ten, Clement had 134 yards on the ground, but a lot of that total came on one 34-yard dash. Otherwise, the Badger back averaged 2.94 yards per carry.

Barkley, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, was involved in Penn State’s passing game at Purdue, too, recording three catches for 70 yards.

That option out of the backfield will help Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley, who’s tasked with dissecting a stout defense. The Hawkeyes allow only 18.9 points per game, while Penn State averages 33.6 per contest.

Something’s got to give — and McSorley feels confident, as he does every week.

“From where we were in August to now, I think we’ve been able to keep improving each week,” McSorley said. “We haven’t maintained, but instead elevated our game each week.”

Defense

Iowa’s offense, led by senior quarterback C.J. Beathard, has plenty of experience but has looked disjointed this season. The Hawkeyes have averaged only 23.4 points per game in Big Ten play so far this season after putting up 31.6 per conference contest in 2015.

Beathard has been fine in the pocket. The 6-foot-2, 215-pounder has 1,380 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and just four interceptions.

And while he hasn’t really threatened with his legs (minus-13 rushing yards this season compared to 237 and six touchdowns in 2015), Beathard’s ability to extend plays isn’t lost on the Nittany Lions.

“It’s really tough when a quarterback is able to sit back there and scramble around,” Penn State cornerback John Reid said. “It gives your offense more time to make plays, and it’s always a difficult thing, not just for the cornerbacks but for the defense as a whole. Being able to contain that is important.”

Unfortunately for Beathard, the guys in front of him haven’t been as effective. The Iowa offensive line has allowed 2.50 sacks per game, tied for 91st in the country.

Prop that up against a Penn State defensive line, and a mismatch could be exposed on Saturday night. The Nittany Lions, aided greatly by pass rushers Evan Schwan and Garrett Sickels, are tied for sixth nationally in tackles for loss per game (8.5).

“That’s the biggest thing we’re focused on,” Ferentz said. “It’s everything — getting guys open, getting the ball out on time, that type of thing. ... It’s going to be a team effort, and we know it’s going to be a big challenge.”

Special teams

Franklin is wary of Desmond King’s ability on the kickoff return. While he’s only returned 14 kicks this season, the senior defensive back is averaging 32.0 yards per attempt, good for fourth-best in the nation.

Penn State kickoff specialist Joey Julius might be wise to boot it out of the back of the end zone.

The Hawkeyes have two kickers — freshman Keith Duncan and sophomore Miguel Recinos. Duncan has hit 6 of 7 field goal attempts with a long of 41 yards, while Recinos is 1 of 2. The sophomore converted a 47-yarder against Wisconsin, but missed from 50 yards against Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Penn State still boasts Tyler Davis, one of 20 semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award, presented to college football’s best placekicker. Davis is 21 of 22 on field goal tries, his only miss coming on a blocked kick against Ohio State.

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