By Sally Fahey
Iowa has struggled to run the ball in the past four meetings with Penn State (0-4), averaging 79.2 yards in those games. While the Nittany Lions’ 129.5 rush yards allowed are fifth-best in the conference, they are off to their first 0-4 start since finishing 2001 with a 5-6 record.
Penn State enters Saturday’s game allowing 34.8 points per game, which is the third-worst in the conference.
Last week’s 30 points by Nebraska was the fewest the Nittany Lions have allowed all season, but the offense gave them a sense of hope in that 30-23 loss by gaining 501 yards and nearly overcoming a 21-point halftime deficit. The comeback attempt was led by sophomore quarterback Will Levis, who was 14-of-31 for a career-high 219 yards after replacing junior Sean Clifford in the second quarter.
As of Tuesday, coach James Franklin did not commit to Levis starting over Clifford, who has completed 56.9 percent (74-for-130) of his passes for 896 yards, with nine touchdowns and six interceptions.
“Will came in and did some good things and put himself in this position and he’s earned (consideration),” Franklin said Tuesday. “No different than Sean earned the ability to be our starting quarterback last year and our starting quarterback to start the season.”
Iowa’s offense is humming lately thanks to an effective ground game, and if the Hawkeyes continue their upswing, coach Kirk Ferentz can reach a significant milestone Saturday afternoon.
Iowa looks to maintain its effective run game at Penn State, and if the Hawkeyes can beat the winless Nittany Lions, Ferentz would become only the fourth coach in Big Ten history to win 100 Big Ten games.
Iowa (2-2) opened the season with close losses to Purdue and Northwestern, but then dominated Michigan State and Minnesota by a combined 84-14.
The last two wins placed Ferentz on the cusp of joining select company in the conference. One more means he’ll join Woody Hayes (152), Bo Schembechler (143), and Amos Alonzo Stagg (115) as the only coaches to win 100 conference games.
Iowa’s 35-7 rout of Minnesota was fueled by an effective running back tandem of Tyler Goodson and Mekhi Sargent, who combined for 228 yards and three touchdowns. Goodson has back-to-back 100-yard games, and has five rushing touchdowns this season.
“We’re really finding out who we are as a team,” Goodson said. “It builds our confidence knowing that we can beat any team. We expect great things in the future, and I believe this team can make those things happen.”
Penn State has won the last six meetings and 11 of the 20 meetings since the Nittany Lions joined the conference in 1993.