The No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-0) will take on the the No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes (4-1) in Kinnick Stadium at 7:30 p.m. Saturday (ABC) in a Big Ten matchup. Here are five things you should keep an eye on:
RB Noah Cain and the 4-RB Penn State rotation
Noah Cain, a true freshman, has impressed at every opportunity — especially his last one, against Purdue — so two questions arise this week: Will he see more touches against Iowa? And will he start over Journey Brown?
The Nittany Lions have a nice “problem” in the backfield, with several talented RBs in Brown, Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade. Cain may not have the home-run ability of the other three but, at a compact 206 pounds, he can pick up a handful of yards on every play. In fact, take away each back’s longest run, and Cain is averaging a half-yard more per carry than everyone else.
Cain has showcased that ability several times this season. Against Pitt, Cain saw a single drive in the third quarter — and proceeded to catch a 13-yard pass and rush for 40 yards en route to what proved to be the game-winning touchdown. James Franklin said afterward that the coaching staff should’ve played him more in the fourth quarter.
And, against Purdue, that’s exactly what the staff did. In the final quarter alone, Cain had eight carries for 82 yards and a touchdown. Cain has been Mr. Consistency on an explosive — but sometimes inconsistent — offense. And, if he’s not in for an increased role Saturday, it’ll be interesting to see which running back is.
Battle in the trenches
We’ll let Penn State offensive lineman Will Fries sum it all up: “That’s what this game is all about, those O-line, D-line matchups.”
There’s a lot of talent on both of these defensive lines, and both units have the chance to set the tone Saturday night. For the Hawkeyes, AJ Epenesa is the big name — and ESPN’s Todd McShay recently ranked him as a late first-round NFL draft pick. But Chauncey Golston is also a talented defensive end who leads all Iowa linemen with 18 tackles. For the Nittany Lions, it’s a similar setup: Yetur Gross-Matos grabs most of the headlines and leads the team in sacks — and is fourth in the Big Ten — with 5.5. (He’s a potential first-round NFL talent, too.) But Shaka Toney, the other defensive end, is also a solid player who flies under the radar more than he should. Toney had three sacks just last week.
“They kind of look like an NFL defensive front,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Both offensive lines have their weaknesses. According to Football Outsiders, which tries to calculate the gains and losses the OL is responsible for, Iowa has one of the nation’s worst pass-blocking lines. It’s ranked No. 86 nationally for allowing sacks on 7.1 percent of pass plays that aren’t in garbage time.
Penn State? According to Football Outsiders, the weakness is the opposite. The Nittany Lions’ OL is ranked No. 88 nationally in run-blocking and No. 35 in pass-blocking.
But feel free to forget all those numbers, and remember this: The trenches are exactly where this game could be won or lost, especially if this turns into a low-scoring affair.
Staying consistent: Iowa QB Nate Stanley & PSU offense
Before the season, Iowa QB Nate Stanley was consistently ranked as either the No. 3 or No. 4 quarterback in the conference. 247 Sports went so far as to label him “criminally underrated.” It’s not hard to see why; he could leave Iowa City as one of its most decorated passers.
But Stanley has also choked in a few big games: He threw three interceptions against Michigan last week in a 10-3 loss. Against Penn State last season, he was 18-of-49 passing with two picks. And, in 2017, he was 8-of-24 passing against Wisconsin. For every upset he’s had against an elite team — like 2017’s raise millions every year — there’s been a loss to a good team after a bad passing performance.
Penn State’s offense has also been inconsistent this season. It thumped Maryland 59-0 and played a near-perfect game, but it sputtered against Pitt. The Purdue game might’ve told the whole story: The Nittany Lions scored touchdowns on their first four drives ... and then scored one more touchdown on the last 10 drives.
The Nittany Lions have some of the conference’s most electric players, with playmakers like KJ Hamler and TE Pat Freiermuth, but this offense still isn’t immune to cold streaks. Which is a weird thing to say about the nation’s No. 5 scoring offense (47.0 points per game). But analysts, reporters and Las Vegas aren’t exactly predicting a shootout Saturday night either.
We just won’t know what kind of Nate Stanley will show up. And we’re not sure what Penn State offense will take the field. If either finds consistency, or if either plays up to its potential, the face of this game will change entirely.
Will Penn State’s special teams rebound?
The Nittany Lions’ special teams have been much improved this season — but last week proved to be a step backward. Jordan Stout sent one kickoff out of bounds, Jake Pinegar missed a 35-yard field goal, KJ Hamler fumbled one return, and Hamler also had three punt returns for negative yardage.
Hamler was clearly pressing — running backward, sprinting horizontally — and trying to find a big play. He didn’t get one but, with Hamler, he can take it to the house on any play. He didn’t help the Nittany Lions on special teams against Purdue, but Kirk Ferentz knows that can change in a hurry against Iowa.
“He’s one of those rare players who has the capability of hitting a home run,” Ferentz said. “And there aren’t a lot of guys like that in baseball, and there aren’t a lot of guys like that in football. But he is truly one of those guys.”
In a game that’s expected to be close, special teams can make all the difference. And, if Penn State plays like last week, it’s not going to like the result. Saturday will show whether special teams can handle a little adversity and move forward. Keep an eye on Hamler.
‘Iowa Wave’ at children’s hospital
Sure, this tradition has only been going on for two years. But it’s already been called the “greatest tradition” in college football, per FOX Sports, and it’s really hard to argue against that.
At the end of every first quarter at Kinnick Stadium, the entire stadium turns away from the field and waves to the children watching from the windows of the children’s hospital that overlooks the stadium.
The Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital opened in early 2017, which is why the tradition is so new. For an opposing university like Penn State, whose students raise millions every year to fight pediatric cancer, it’s a tradition that even visiting PSU alumni will want to take part in.
So, if you’re unfamiliar with the tradition, keep your eyes peeled after the opening quarter. And, if you are familiar, you already know you won’t want to miss it.