No. 10 Penn State boasts the slight edge against No. 17 Iowa in Saturday’s night’s Big Ten game — the Nittany Lions are 3.5-point favorites — but, if PSU wants to win on the field and not on paper, it needs to dominate its matchups.
Here are the two key matchups to Saturday’s game (7:30 p.m., ABC) that we think will directly to determine the outcome:
Josh Moyer: Penn State offensive line vs. Iowa defensive line
Let’s start off with some fun with numbers. The toughest front-four that Penn State has played to this point is Pitt; Pitt’s defense is ranked No. 21 nationally in total defense and No. 19 nationally in rush defense.
Remember how the Nittany Lions struggled against the Panthers? How they scored a season-low 17 points and, outside of Journey Brown’s long run, averaged 2.6 yards per carry on the other 31 rushes?
Well, Iowa’s front four is better. Much, much better.
On paper, the Hawkeyes boast the best defense Penn State has yet seen. They’re ranked No. 5 nationally in total defense and No. 11 nationally in rush defense. And, on the field, head coach James Franklin knows he’s in for a real test from the Hawkeyes’ defensive coordinator.
“Defensively, Phil Parker does as good a job as anybody in the country,” Franklin said Tuesday. “Obviously, their defense is ranked extremely high and very well thought of in scoring defense.”
Penn State offensive lineman Will Fries took it one step further.
“That’s what this game is all about,” he said, “those O-line, D-line matchups.”
Fries isn’t wrong. Penn State’s offense has one of the highest ceilings in the nation — at least three running backs/wideouts have the ability to score from anywhere on any play — but it also has one of the lowest floors. Let’s not forget, a few weeks ago, Penn State was ranked No. 127 out of 130 teams in third-down offense. So how does the offense end on a high note Saturday instead of on that floor? Well, winning in the trenches.
If quarterback Sean Clifford has time — if the receivers have an extra second to get open — then good things happen. (Remember when Clifford avoided pressure against Idaho, stepped up in the pocket and launched a long TD pass?) And if the running backs can find holes, they can take advantage. (Brown already has an 85-yard scamper and Devyn Ford went for an 81-yard touchdown.)
If this offensive line doesn’t allow too much pressure Saturday, if Penn State’s running backs can find a little bit of room, this is Penn State’s game. But the Nittany Lions can’t expect the defense to hold Iowa to a field goal, like Michigan did last week. They need to score.
It won’t come easy against two elite defensive ends in AJ Epenesa, whom Mel Kiper Jr. ranked as high as No. 5 on his 2020 NFL draft big board, and Chauncey Golston — who’s reportedly gained 50 pounds of muscle since arriving in Iowa City. They haven’t posted stats like last season, in terms of sacks, but there’s no denying their talent, ability to pressure and efficiency.
Saturday could very well be a low-scoring game. It might even be a race to 20 points. So, if Penn State’s offensive line can win more battles than it loses, the advantage swings entirely to Franklin’s squad. But, against Iowa, that’s a big “if.”
Jon Sauber: Iowa QB Nate Stanley vs. Penn State’s secondary
While it’s easy to anticipate Saturday night’s matchup in Kinnick Stadium to be a low-scoring affair, Iowa still has to score to win the game. Nate Stanley, Iowa’s starting quarterback, will have to lead the Hawkeye offense on scoring drives to have a chance in this one. He’s been up-and-down throughout his career and has had his best games against mediocre opponents. Stanley is a traditional pocket passer with limited mobility but a strong frame to withstand punishment.
The Iowa quarterback hasn’t fared well in his two previous starts against Penn State. As a sophomore, Stanley struggled against the Nittany Lions in his lone home start against them. He completed 13-of-22 passes for 191 yards in a difficult 21-19 loss. He followed that with a far worse performance last year in his junior campaign, completing 18-of-49 passes for 205 yards and two interceptions in a 30-24 loss in Happy Valley. That kind of performance won’t lead to a victory against Penn State this weekend.
The Penn State secondary, led by John Reid and Tariq Castro-Fields at cornerback and Garrett Taylor and Lamont Wade at safety, will be in charge of keeping Stanley off his game with its coverage. The Nittany Lions have the firepower to hang with an Iowa receiving corps that isn’t great, although Ihmir Smith-Marsette has the ability to cause problems for Penn State. If the Penn State secondary can lock down Smith-Marsette and the rest of the Iowa weapons on the outside, Iowa is going to struggle to score. Stanley’s ability to get those weapons the ball will dictate Iowa’s chances on Saturday night.
If he plays well, Iowa will have a shot Saturday night. If he plays poorly, Penn State will have a strong chance to walk out of Kinnick Stadium with a win.