The Iowa football team travels to State College for a showdown with Penn State on Saturday. Here’s what to watch for and a prediction.
Both the Iowa Hawkeyes and Penn State Nittany Lions are having down seasons in 2020 relative to preseason expectations. The Hawkeyes (2-2) could easily be undefeated, but lost their first two games by four points and one point, respectively. In the last two weeks, Iowa has outscored their opponents 84-14.
For Penn State (0-4), expectations were thrown out the window after the first two games. Dreams of a Big Ten title were gone after the team lost to Ohio State in Week 2. The Nittany Lions sit winless after four games, only the second time in school history they’ve started 0-4.
But just because they’re 0-4 doesn’t mean Penn State won’t be a tough outing. The Hawkeyes are on a six-game losing streak to Penn State and are only a 2.5-point favorite on Saturday, per Action Network.
Here’s what to watch for during the game:
1. Can Iowa’s pass-rush make backup quarterback Will Levis uncomfortable?
First-year Penn State offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca implemented an RPO-heavy offense (run/pass option) this season, but hasn’t seen much success with Sean Clifford at quarterback. Clifford was benched last week against Nebraska after turning the ball over twice in the first half.
Penn State turned over the reigns to Will Levis, who figures to be the starter against Iowa. Levis wasn’t much better, though, completing just 45 percent of his passes for 219 yards and no touchdowns against the Huskers.
The Hawkeyes have been getting after opposing quarterbacks in recent weeks, highlighted by a three-sack performance from Zach VanValkenburg against Minnesota. VanValkenburg is now tied for first in the Big Ten in sacks (3.5). Iowa has sacked opponents on 7.3 percent of drop backs this seaosn. Making life uncomfortable will be huge against Penn State’s ‘backup’ quarterback.
2. Will this be Spencer Petras’ breakout game?
Don’t count on it. That said, Petras can’t perform much worse than what we’ve seen already. He’s completing 53.7 percent of his passes and has thrown three touchdowns to four interceptions. Kirk Ferentz said on Tuesday he’s pleased with the direction Petras is heading, but that’s something we’ve come to expect from the dean of college coaches.
Penn State allows just 230.5 passing yards per game, while Petras is averaging just 190 passing yards per game. As a team, Iowa ranks 96th in average pass yards and 120th in passing efficiency (101.9). If Petras has another clunker on Saturday, don’t be surprised to see Alex Padilla in the lineup next week against Nebraska.
3. Can Iowa extend their takeaway streak?
The Hawkeyes have at least two takeaways in every game this season. Safety Jack Koerner has recorded an interception in each of his last three games. Can the Hawkeyes extend their streak to five games in a row of at least two takeaways? Iowa’s offense is essentially one-dimensional at this point, having to rely on the running game. Turnovers are essential to keep the Hawkeyes in this game.
Prediction: Iowa 27, Penn State 23
The Hawkeyes have one of the Big Ten’s stingiest defenses. Iowa allows just 2.8 yards per carry and just 4.2 yards per play. Against a backup quarterback in Levis, and no starting running back in Journey Brown, the Hawkeyes should be able to outscore the Nittany Lions.