Come Saturday evening, there’ll be some kinda hoedown in the whitened out confines of Beaver Stadium, as the almost-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) come to town to square off with the #5 Nittany Lions (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) in the first conference game of the season. The Lions’ official terminology czar, Guido d’Elia, demands that we call this a Whitehouse game, so we will. Any way you slice it, Beaver Stadium will be visible from the moon, a vast white blobule with a small wedge of black and yellow in the crappy seats in the northeast corner.
A lot of big shots are attending the game. Katie, from our local chapter of the alumni association will be there. Mike of Black Shoes Diary will be there. Because of their presence, I suppose, ESPN has decided to air College Gameday from Beaver Stadium this weekend, too. The folks at ESPN/Disney/ABC are no fools, you know.
Back here at The Cave, as a tribute to our opponents, we’re having chicken wings (we couldn’t get hawk eyes), steak, and corn on the cob.
You know what this game is all about, no matter what Joe Paterno says. It is all about revenge! Last year, the Lions lost a heartbreaker at Kinnick Stadium 24-23 on a last-second field goal, dashing the Lions’ lofty hopes for a berth in the Still Somewhat Mythical National Championship game. Furthermore, Iowa has beaten PSU six of the past seven times. Yeah, it’s not only about revenge but also about Penn State pride. These corn-fed hog farmers seem to have Penn State’s number!
However, this is not last year. Comparisons are a nifty tool for hack writers, so I guess I’ll draw a few parallels. Last year, the Hawkeyes had a super stud running back, Shonn Green, around whom the offense was structured. This year, they don’t. He’s taking handoffs from Mark Sanchez, playing for the NFL New York Jets. Furthermore, last year, Nittany Lion quarterback Daryll Clark was playing under the influence of a concussion he suffered while playing his ass off against Ohio State. This year, his bell has yet to be rung. Finally, I think the most significant difference between last year and this year is in the quality of Penn State’s offensive line. Last year, the Nittany Lions had a superb group. This year, well… Read more of my thoughts about the offensive line a few paragraphs down the page.
The weather will be crappy, with temperatures in the 50s and rain being forecast. As for the game, wet balls and some wind should keep the scoring down. (If you’ve ever played with wet balls, you know how slippery they can be.)
Another big factor will be whether either Nittany Lions starting outside linebacker, Navorro Bowman or Sean Lee, is fit to play this game. As of now, it appears that Bowman will play, but Lee will not. If Bowman does play, he will not be 100%, particularly his endurance, as he has not played a full game since the Rose Bowl. The impact of the loss of consistent performers such as Lee cannot be understated. It is this Turkey’s hope that whoever steps into his role can perform above his own capabilities. Yet another linebacker, Nate Stupar, hurt his ankle in Tuesday’s practice, but it is said to be a minor injury. At this moment, it is uncertain whether he will play on Saturday. The team doctors make these decisions, and they’re known to be conservative in doing so.
You’re getting tired of hearing me badmouth the offensive line. However, I haven’t seen anything to suggest that my assessment of their lack of talent and coordination is inaccurate. The substitution of big Johnny Troutman for undersized Matt Stankiewicz last week might have helped a bit, but it is not going to be enough to salvage this unit. There were a few reasons why they were able to provide better run blocking last week against Temple; this substitution was not one of them. I think the reasons were: a) Dennis Landolt’s experience at left tackle, b) Temple was not playing eight or nine in the box, and c) it was, after all, Temple. Furthermore, passer protection, which had been excellent up to the Temple game, broke down several times against the Owls. These guys just aren’t very good.
Iowa has a relentless pass rush. If they can use it effectively and also contain the run, they can win this game. I envision seeing white shirts in the PSU backfield quite a few times on Saturday. The Lions better have some blitz-beaters available in the offensive game plan. How do you beat an aggressive pass rush? With screens and draws. Boring football, to be sure, but necessary when pressure takes away one’s deep routes. We haven’t seen a real pass rush yet, and we don’t know what will happen when we do. Let us keep our fingers crossed. Perhaps the Nittany Lions’ offensive brain trust (the HD Flats) can effectively employ Clark in some bootlegs and roll-outs, for a change. I think they’re going to have to.
If Iowa can effectively remove the deep threats of Zug (who has been practicing, despite a head injury suffered in the Temple game) and Moye, they will be able to keep the game under control. Clark needs to be very careful going deep. I’m sure he’s watched his film from last year many times, and it plays in his head continually. That interception was costly, and Clark is well aware of it. Penn State will have to rely on the running game, which is problematical because of the offensive line, and short pass plays because of the uncertainty of the offensive line’s pass protection capabilities.
On the other side of the ball, fortunately, as I mentioned, Shonn Green is not around anymore. Before Sean Lee’s injury, this Turkey was hoping that Penn State would be able to shut down the Greenless Iowa running game so as to force Ricky Stanzi to beat us with the pass. Unfortunately, with the linebackers in a state of flux, I am uncertain about how this might play out. Green’s former back up, Jewel Hampton, is out for the season due to injury, a fact that initially did not portend well for the Iowa rushing offense. However, the development of two freshmen, Brandon Wegher and Adam Robinson, who each ran for 101 yards against Iowa State and Arizona, respectively, has given the Hawkeyes cause for hope.
I think that there is enough talent on defense to win the game without Lee, but all the breaks have to go PSU’s way, and the defensive play calling has to be on the money. Some of the breaks have already gone Penn State’s way, via the injured list. Iowa will be missing a starting left tackle (Bryan Bulaga), a tight end (Tony Moeaki), and a big play receiver (Derrell Johnson-Koulianos).
So, I view this as a closer and lower-scoring game than many pundits do. (I don’t consider myself a pundit — just a guy down at the neighborhood bar with an opinion.) I’m thinking that 24 points will be more than enough to win this one.
In a close game, special teams and turnovers become especially important. I’m going to give the Nittany Lions the benefit of the doubt on turnovers, thinking that they’re going to be more likely to have a net positive experience in that respect in this game. However, Penn State’s special teams performance, with the exception of punting, have sucked the big one. They’re absolutely awful on kickoff returns, both when kicking and receiving. They’re not much better on punt returns. There’s a place kicker who misses easy field goals and who does not seem to be able to get the ball into the end zone on kickoffs. Special teams can win or lose close games. This Turkey feels that if it comes down to relying on these guys to win the game, we’re going to come up dry.
The huge, white home crowd will have a morale boosting effect that is probably worth a touchdown in itself. The other guys have an inspirational intangible of their own: they haven’t lost since beating Penn State last year on November 8 and they played a tough game on the road before a hostile crowd last weekend at Arizona, winning it 27-17. Both teams will be charged up.
Well, that brings us to the weekly feature of this crazy column that we call The Official Turkey Poop Prediction of the Week. The gamblers see Penn State as a 10-point favorite, with an over/under of 40. This Turkey sees damp, cold weather keeping the score well under the Reno line of demarcation. The big questions are whether Penn State can cover the spread for the first time thus far this season, and indeed, can they produce enough points to win. I’m saying no to the former and yes to the latter. However, special teams’ incompetence will keep it close, and Iowa will be harassing Clark more than he’s seen from anyone else this year. His mental game will have to be right on the money to win this one. Penn State 20, Iowa 17.