September 30, 2010

Preview: Penn State at Iowa

#22 AP / 3-1, 0-0 BigTen @ IOWA
#17 AP 3-1, 0-0 BigTen
10/2, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN Wk 4 - W, 22-13 vs TU Wk 4 - W, 45-0 vs BSU

Evan Royster runs for a big 4th quarter gain [2]
Evan Royster had his first big rushing game
this season last week, but Iowa's
defense is a whole different ballgame.
Has there been any more painful series for Penn State than that with the Iowa Hawkeyes? Probably not since joining the Big Ten, at least. Well, two years after the absolutely most soul-crushing defeat ever at the hands of the Pig Head Chuckers, it's time to head back to Kinnick Stadium, for what hopefully will not turn into yet another cut-wrenching disappointment.

So, let's get to it...

The Iowa Defense

The Hawkeyes' longtime defensive coordinator Norm Parker has been hospitalized due to an ongoing battle with diabetes. He missed all but one game this season, but you wouldn't know it with how the defense has fared without their leader. Iowa has the No. 1 defense in college football, giving up a measly 228 yards per game. The rush defense is No. 3 overall (65 ypg) and the pass is No. 21 overall (162 ypg).

Iowa returns all four starting linemen from a year ago, with the ever menacing Adrian Clayborn on one side and Broderick Binns on the other. Up the middle, Karl Klug has been able to consistently get into the backfield, with 3.5 tackles for loss and two QB hurries. The most surprising star has come from Mike Daniels, who came into the season as a second string defensive tackle, but currently leads the Hawks in TFL (7.5, minus-43 yds) and sacks (3.5, minus-25 yds). If you ever need to name another team that seamlessly reloads each year along the defensive line, it's Iowa.

In Iowa's biggest game this season, at Iowa on Sept. 18, the front seven held the Wildcats in check with just 63 rushing yards. However, the secondary may have been a bit exposed, as AZ quarterback Nick Foles had a field day, throwing for 303 yards, two touchdowns and only one pick. Surprisingly enough, the Hawks' defense hasn't been too great at actually getting to the quarterback as a group. All tolled, Iowa has only sacked opposing quarterbacks seven times.

Going up against this unit is a brutal task for almost any team in college football.

PSU Pass Offense vs. Iowa

The only "fast" defense Penn State faced this season was down at Alabama. The Tide blitz packages were able to get to Rob Bolden just fast enough to cause bad throws, and interceptions. Penn State has only allowed one sack this entire season, coming last week when Bolden was hit and fumbled by a Temple defender. But that doesn't mean the freshman hasn't been knocked around. On what felt like a majority of his throws last week, Bolden was hit--very hard--just as he released the ball. This week, against this Iowa defense--the same defense that forced a game-changing safety last season on a Daryll Clark sack and fumble--the Penn State offense will have one hell of a time trying to slow down Clayborn, Binns, and Daniels. It won't matter what Penn State's wide receivers do, if the ball never reaches them.

Impact Spot: Right tackle... Senior starting right tackle Lou Eliades tore his ACL last week. It couldn't have come at a worse time for the Penn State offensive line. Now, former defensive lineman Chima Okoli will have to step in and brace for the inevitable onslaught of Iowa defensive pressure aimed right at his side of the line. Watch for more movement in Penn State's pocket passing game, with roll-out plays away from Okoli's side of the field.

PSU Rush Offense vs. Iowa

Even after a decent game against Temple, totalling 202 team rushing yards, Penn State is terribly mediocre statistically on the ground. Penn State is averaging 159 rush yards per game, good for only 61st nationally. Something scary to look forward to: Iowa is the No. 3 rush defense in college football, allowing 65 yards per game. The Hawkeyes' rush defense numbers have been inflated due to sack yardage, either. So what you see is what you get with the Iowa run defense. The Nittany Lions have been searching for more than just functional run blocking this season, highlighted by their repeated inability to get a good push on short-yardage run plays like 3rd and 1. The Iowa defense, especially the run defense, is better than the unit Alabama fielded on Sept. 11. And will probably be the best run defense Penn State will face all season.

Impact Spot: Evan Royster... Was his 187-yard explosion against Temple for real? All season, the biggest grumble from the fans centered around Royster, who for three weeks went M.I.A. But last Saturday, the soon-to-be all-time leading Penn State rusher loudly announced his return with a 50-yard jaunt on the first carry of the game. Royster consistently broke tackles, stayed on his feet, and hit the ever so small holes in the line with determination we haven't seen in a long time. But we don't know if that was just a tease, or if Royster is indeed back.

The Iowa Offense

Iowa hasn't never been an offensive juggernaut. There have been very good offensive Hawkeyes teams (2002, for example), but most of the time this is a program that's lived off of defense and solid special teams. Sound familiar? It should, because that's exactly what Penn State has been doing under Joe Paterno for a half century. But for three years now, a scrappy winner has been leading this unit to improbable win after improbable win. If you're an Iowa fan, Ricky Stanzi can either piss you off beyond rational thought, or make you so happy that you're not sure if it's the same guy you hated five seconds ago.

Just look at the Indiana game from last season. The Hoosiers were leading Iowa by a good margin, with five, FIVE Stanzi interceptions not helping matters. But with a great defense and some huge fourth-quarter plays by the quarterback, Iowa won the game. Even at Penn State last season, Stanzi did just enough to outlast the Nittany Lions, who eventually imploded on special teams.

Iowa runs a pro-style offense, which Penn State has traditionally defended very well. The last two years, Penn State has actually outgained Iowa, while the defense has held the Hawkeyes to an average of 285 yards.

PSU Pass Defense vs. Iowa

Ricky Stanzi had a decent game against Iowa, but there were three plays that you won't notice right away in the box score: Sack, Sack, and Sack. On three consecutive plays, on Iowa's final meaningful possession in Tuscon, Stanzi was sacked three times, including one on fourth down. Some of it was the offensive line's fault, not picking up Arizona's pressure. But much of it was also Stanzi's fault, as he held the ball way too long without throwing it away.

Penn State's back seven really stepped up last week against Temple, looking more like Iowa's ball-hawking defense than Penn State's traditional sit-back-and-tackle style. Joe Paterno even admitted he challenged the defense, specifically mentioning safety Nick Sukay, to play the ball, not the receiver. It worked, as Sukay picked off two passes, another picked by linebacker Nate Stupar. But like Royster's outing last week, was the performance by the Nittany Lions' back seven just a one-game wonder?

Impact Spot: Penn State's edge rush... I'm not sure how many times I've said it this year, but it doesn't matter how good your receivers are, if the ball never reaches their hands. That's Penn State's key for this game, and the coaches should be hammering it right through their players' heads into the Holuba Hall floor. Pete "White Maybin" Massaro has really stepped up the last few weeks, while Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still have been fantastic up the middle. If Penn State can't get pressure on Stanzi, forcing him to play faster than he wants to, it will turn into yet another Alabama-esque debacle.

PSU Rush Defense vs. Iowa

Iowa's starter, Jewel Hampton is out for the season with a torn ACL. Good news? Yeah, you also thought Mark Ingram missing the Penn State game would matter. Adam Robinson has stepped in nicely for Hampton, leading the team with 385 yards in four games--about 100 more than Evan Royster. But there is some silver lining to this matchup: Iowa couldn't run the ball, at all, against Arizona. The 'Zona defense is good this year, but it's still not as stacked with talent as the Nittany Lions' unit. The Iowa offensive line has been only mediocre this season, not unlike Penn State's front five.

In 2008, Iowa had a superstar running back in Shonn Greene. In 2009, a veteran offensive line allowed the Hawkeyes to move the ball very well even with only decent running backs. Coming into this season, Iowa only had 36 career starts returning on the offensive line, and a starter who came into the season as a backup.

Impact Spot: Bouncing runs outside... There was one really bad run given up by Penn State last week, when Matt Brown gashed, almost untouched, up the middle for about 20 yards. But overall, Penn State's strength is in the middle of the line. That frequently forces runners to bounce runs outside, which Penn State has in turn defended pretty poorly this season against good backs. The defensive ends must force runs back into the defense, while the corners must not get swallowed up by their receiver blocks on the outside.

Special Teams

Before I say anything here, remember: this is Iowa. So anything can happen, even the most improbable. But this season, Penn State not only has special teams that can compete against the Hawkeyes and any other team, the Nittany Lions may actually have the best special teams in the Big Ten. Anthony Fera has averaged a net 38.6 yards per punt. Collin Wagner has nailed 10 of 12 kicks this season, many from beyond 40 yards. The kickoff return game already scored a touchdown. The punt return game has human lightening bolt Devon "Moo Moo" Smith taking back at least one electrifying return per game. All the while, teams haven't been able to return squat against Penn State.

Iowa, though, has only decent special teams. This is a facet of the game that can swing things in awfully drastic fashion. Against Arizona, it was Iowa that gave up a blocked punt, and a kickoff return touchdown. In that seven-point loss, those were the difference.

Impact Spot: Kickoff/punt returns... Penn State can't put its offense in holes. Solid special teams play all around will be huge in this game, but nothing more than the field position game. Chaz Powell and Stephfon Green have been great on kickoff returns, while Smith and Justin Brown haven't made any mistakes yet on punt returns. My bet is on the kickoff return game to make a big play, but don't be surprised if this is Smith's coming out party as a punt returner.

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Red Zone Woes... It happened at Alabama. One-for-three. It happened against Temple. Four-for-five, but only one touchdown. Jay Paterno wrote this week on Twitter that the offense spent lots of time on red zone situations. Let's hope it was a good practice. Iowa's defense won't allow much of anything unless your team goes out and takes it. We saw it with boiling frustration the last time Penn State visited Iowa City, as Penn State settled for three field goals in its five red zone trips.

Luck... Even the most twistedly-biased Iowa blog on the internet admits that Penn State has come up on the short end of the luck stick in this series. Iowa has seemingly gotten every lucky call, every lucky bounce, every lucky everything in its seven wins the last nine meetings. It's bound to run out sooner or later, right? RIGHT???


Since this is the Big Ten opener, we'll wrap up with an overall evaluation.

Penn State shouldn't win this game, but can. Iowa got punched in the face at Arizona, and wasn't able to recover in time to avoid losing a bad game on the road. Ricky Stanzi, now a junior three-year starter, is still having issues with ball control, even if he's not always giving it directly to the other team. The defense is great as always, but the special teams were the big goat two weeks ago. There haven't been many tests for the Hawkeyes this season, with their opponents going only 6-6 against other teams. Meanwhile, Penn State's opponents are 10-1 in their other games. I'm not going to call this game now, as you'll have to wait for our Staff Predictions tomorrow. But once Iowa lost at Arizona, and lost its staring running back, this game moved from solid-Iowa, to lean-Iowa.

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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