By Michael Donovan
Penn State toughed out a 33-28 win over Indiana last Saturday to stop their brutal two-game losing streak to Ohio State and Michigan State.
And another Big 10 power comes a calling this Saturday at 3:30 pm:
Iowa is enjoying a fine season.
The No. 18 Hawkeyes (6-1 overall, 3-1 Big Ten) are riding a three-game winning streak since losing to Wisconsin at the end of September. The Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2) are coming off a win at Indiana.
Iowa is chasing a Big Ten West title. Penn State already has two home losses.
“One thing about playing Penn State, this has been true for a long, long time, you’re guaranteed they’re going to have good players. They’ve recruited well forever up there. Tremendously gifted, tremendously athletic. They have good size, speed, talent. That’s a given,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said.
The Hawkeyes won’t have to deal with all-world running back Saquon Barkley, who dominated last year’s game and left for the NFL after the season. They will have to handle his sidekick, quarterback Trace McSorley, who’s last-second, seven-yard touchdown pass to Juwan Johnson in Iowa City helped his team escape with a 21-19 victory last September.
McSorley stresses defenses with his arm and his legs. He’s skilled at disguising the run-pass option (RPO) aspect of the offense.
He ranks fourth in the Big Ten in yards per completion (13.16) and leads all conference quarterbacks in rushing yards (554). He’s No. 8 in the league overall in ground yards.
“It’s really tough. I’ve said it before, when you think about Braxton Miller, some of the guys like that, it’s like playing 12 guys when you face those guys. He can make a play out of nothing. He’s got that ability. That’s why he’s such a dangerous performer,” Ferentz said.
McSorley has help. While he’s not Barkley (few are), Miles Sanders is a really good running back. He ranks third in the Big Ten with 110.3 rushing yards a game. His eight rushing touchdowns tie him with his quarterback for the most in the league.
KJ Hamler is dangerous in the open field as a receiver and on returns. He leads the team in receptions (22), receiving touchdowns (5) and yards per catch (18.2). He’s 17th nationally with 26.6 yards per kick return.
Defensively, the Lions lead the conference in sacks with 25. It likes to blitz and takes chances by bringing defensive backs.
“They do a lot of counters and stuff at the top of their rush when they get to the quarterback level. That’s where they get a lot of their sacks,” Hawkeye offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs said. “We can’t let our internal clock get the best of us, thinking the play is over and they can hit us with something at the very end.”
Iowa leads the Big Ten in scoring defense at 14.1 points per game, which ranks fifth nationally. The 2.7 yards yielded per carry rates sixth in the country.
“They’re as sound as it gets on defense and really have been for a long time. They’re disciplined, they’re physical, and they’re well-coached,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
The Lions moved the ball well on Iowa last year but struggled finishing drives. The Hawkeyes have improved defensively since that game.
“They pose a lot of challenges as far as how you’re going to block them up front with their ability and size and all that, and you’ve really got to earn it, like I said, on offense in the passing game and in the running game. That’s what they did last year to us, made us earn everything,” McSorley said.
Iowa’s offense is showing more dimensions that it has in recent years. The tight ends, receivers and running backs all are contributing to a balanced attack. Quarterback Nate Stanley is improving weekly.
“It’s going to be tough because he’s experienced so he’s played in tough environments like this before, so we’re just going to prepare for him like we do any other quarterback every week, but I think he’ll give us a good challenge, but I think we’ll be up for it,” Lion cornerback Amani Oruwariye said.
Iowa and Penn State have faced one common opponent this season. The Hawkeyes won at Indiana, 42-16, two weeks ago. The Lions claimed a 33-28 victory in Bloomington last Saturday.
TV ANNOUNCERS: Steve Levy, Brian Griese, Todd McShay on ESPN.
SERIES: Saturday will be the 28th meeting between Iowa and Penn State. The Nittany Lions have won the last four meetings and hold a 15-12 advantage in the series. The last time the teams met with both schools ranked in the AP Top 25 was 2010, when No. 17 Iowa defeated No. 20 Penn State 24-3 in Iowa City.
BETTING LINES: Penn State opened as a 7.5-point favorite on Sunday, a number that dropped to 6 as of Monday at the Wynn Casino in Las Vegas. The total was set at 52.5.
-Penn State is 13-4-1 Against The Spread in its last 18 games at home.
-The total has gone OVER in 4 of Penn State’s last 6 games at home.
-Iowa is 8-1 ATS in its last 8 games overall.
-The total has gone OVER in 4 of Iowa’s last 5 games on the road.
PENN STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH
–Trace McSorley, QB – He lost a lot of firepower on offense from last year’s team and it’s shown with some inconsistencies this year. He comes into this game ranked eighth in passing efficiency among Big Ten signal callers. Still, he’s always dangerous with his arm and legs. He can take over a game.
–Miles Sanders, RB – Sanders was never going to be Saquon Barkley but he’s still been pretty darn good. He averages 110 rushing yards a game and 6.5 yards per carry. His eight touchdowns are tied for tops in the league. He’s well put together with good speed.
–Nick Scott, S – Scott is the do-everything type defensive back who seems to be all over the field making plays. He supports the run well but also can cover. He’s among the team’s leading tacklers for loss.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Penn State: The Nittany Lions have been up and down on defense this season. They better be able to slow down Iowa’s running game or it could be a long afternoon.
Iowa: Contain McSorley. If he gets in a rhythm, he can put a team on his back.