Iowa Hawkeyes (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten) vs. #20 Penn State Nittany Lions (6-2, 4-1)
A night game at St. Joe Stadium at Beaver, whether an officially declared white-out or not, is always a daunting prospect for visiting football teams as well as a raucous time for Penn State fans. On Saturday night, the newly bowl-eligible, 20th ranked Nittany Lions will host the well rested Iowa Hawkeyes, who are arguably the best of their remaining opponents.
A win over the Hawkeyes might mean the Lions could play in a New Year’s Day bowl in Florida as opposed to the mythical, metaphorical, mid-December Toilet Bowl in Kohler, WI, so the stakes are commensurately high.
The Hawkeyes’ most recent game before last week’s bye was a defensive duel with the Wisconsin Badgers, with Iowa coming out on the short end of the stick on their home turf. The final score was 17-9.
Always seems like we’re looking at a low scoring game with the Hawkeyes, doesn’t it?
Will the Nittany Lions be able to make Birdseye frozen lima beans out of the Hawkeyes? Newly energized by an amazing upset of the Ohio State University Buckeyes followed by a sound trouncing of the Purdue Boilermakers, the Nittany Lions have created a suitably sanguine set of expectations in Nittany Nation. A big win over Iowa would lend an element of legitimacy to the Sanguinarians’ credo: “Penn State is back!” The Lions are ranked in the Top 20 for the first time in a helluva long time, and the aforementioned Sanguinarians now have them going to the Rose Bowl. Well, that would be a very high pie in the Sanguinarian sky, but a Florida New Year’s Day bowl game is sure as hell not out of the question in the wake of a Saturday win.
The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, have a schedule that makes each win precious. After playing Penn State, their three remaining opponents are Michigan, Illinois, and Nebraska. Assuming that they lose to Penn State, Michigan, and Nebraska, a win over Illinois will be required to enable minimal bowl eligibility for the Hawkeyes, who have earned bowl eligibility in 14 of the past 15 seasons.
The Hawkeyes have won nine consecutive road games, and they have won the last four meetings when Penn State entered the game ranked.
In its Big Ten games this year aside from Purdue, Iowa has struggled to put points on the board. They scored only 14 at Rutgers, but it was enough to win. Same deal at Minnesota. With Wisconsin, they mustered 9 points in a losing effort at home.
With apologies to Larry David, I would counsel the Sanguinarians to curb their enthusiasm until after Penn State plays out its season. If the Nittany Lions should happen to beat Iowa this week, then in the Turkey sports book they’ll be odds-on favorites to screw up the projected noon start in Bloomington next week. Please do not count any chickens — or chicken hawks — before they hatch.
Hawkeyes Last Outing
Wisconsin could score only 17 points against Iowa, but the Badgers held the Birdbrains to just 236 yards total offense and did not allow even a single touchdown by the Hawkeyes, the first game all season where they didn’t reach pay dirt. It was Iowa’s third straight home loss. Senior quarterback C. J. Beathard was 17-33 for 153 yards through the air, with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He had a difficult time finding open receivers against the Badger secondary. His best bet was junior running back Akrum Wadley coming out of the backfield. Wadley had seven receptions for 72 yards, in addition to 10 carries for 44 yards, a career day on which he was the Hawkeyes’ primary offensive weapon.
As you might have guessed, Iowa is loaded on defense. Senior defensive back Desmond King, a Jim Thorpe semifinalist, had 12 tackles against Wisconsin. King is the only Big Ten player in the past 20 years with 12+ career interceptions and 1,500+ combined kickoff/punt return yards. Senior defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson had four tackles including two sacks. Johnson is tied for fourth in the Big Ten with 5.5 sacks. Junior linebacker Josey Jewell, a Butkus Award semifinalist, led all defenders with 16 tackles including six solos. Jewell ranks second in the Big Ten with 77 tackles.
The Hawkeyes lead the Big Ten and rank sixth in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 27.8 yards per return. The aforementioned Desmond King, who is third in the Big Ten individually, averages 32 yards per return. He returned one for 77 yards against Wisconsin, representing Iowa’s longest play this season.
Stats ‘n ‘at
Iowa’s special teams have been truly special. In addition to King, senior wide receiver Riley McCarron had a 54-yard kickoff return and a 38-yard punt return versus Northwestern in Week 5. McCarron leads the Big Ten in both kickoff and punt returns. Desmond King is third in kick returns. Kicker Ron Coluzzi leads the Big Ten in touchbacks, having recorded a touchback on 33 of 43 kickoffs. No other Big Ten kicker has more than 28 touchbacks. Freshman kicker Keith Duncan has converted 28 of 28 PATs, and six of seven field goals.
Aside from kickoff returns, the Hawkeyes lead the conference in one other statistical category, that being fourth down conversions. They’ve converted five of six, about 12% better than second-place Ohio State.
Iowa’s turnover margin is plus seven. Only tOSU and Minnesota at +10 each, are better in the conference. The Hawkeyes have lost but a single fumble all year.
Two Iowa running backs, Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels appear on the Big Ten rushing leaderboard, which, of course is topped by Nittany Lion Saquon Barkley, who is also atop the TD scoring stat board, tied with Minnesota’s Rodney Smith.
In most statistical categories, however, Iowa is an upper middle-class Big Ten team. Last year they were special. This year, not so much. But they do not suck.
Third down woes blow
I’ll tell you what really does suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.
Penn State improved its turnover rate to positive territory during the masterful win over Purdue. However, its bugaboo continue to be third-down conversion rate and the associated time of possession. Even after the masterful Purdue win, the Nittany Lions are last in the Big Ten in third-down conversions — by a considerable margin — converting but 25.3% of their opportunities.
Turning to the last page of NCAA FBS third-down stats, we find Penn State now dead fucking horrible shitcake putrid suckass LAST, outsucking Bowling Green by .005. That’s right, folks. Dead last. Out of 128 teams in the FBS, your Nittany Lions rank 128th. You want some consolation regarding “not quite suckage”? Well, here’s some solace for you. Penn State ranks 115th in time of possession, but Iowa ranks 123rd.
Not at Iowa. Kirk Ferentz is now in his 18th season coaching there. He is tied with Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops as the longest active FBS coaches. The metaphorical merry-go-round is more like a stationary hobby-horse in Iowa. Ferentz’s predecessor, the legendary Hayden Fry, who is famous for painting the visitors’ locker rooms pink at Kinnick stadium, turned the program over to his then assistant after 20 years at the helm.
Pumping Iron with the Alumnus of the Week
This week we celebrate 74 year-old outdoorsman Charles L. Gaines. Born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1942, Gaines earned an MFA in writing from the University of Iowa. He wrote numerous books, both fiction and non-fiction, mostly about outdoor topics such as fly fishing, bird hunting, and mountaineering.
Gaines’ most successful literary effort, however, was his 1974 opus, “Pumping Iron”, which chronicled the sport of professional bodybuilding, bringing it to increased public awareness and thereby helping launch the career of Arnold Schwartzenegger. A documentary film of the same name was released in 1977.
Charles Gaines is also credited with inventing paintball. Gaines and his friend Bob Gurnsey discussed the idea after Gaines had returned from an African safari. Gaines and 11 others played the first game of paintball, using Nel-Spot pistols, which were intended for marking trees and livestock by ranchers. Later, Bob Gurnsey formed the National Survival Game Company, which was the first firm to sell paintball equipment.
Gaines is still alive and is active in the conservation movement.
November in Central Pennsylvania. Oy vey. Well, in this case, it doesn’t look so bad. Right now, our friends at AccuWeather® in State College are predicting a day of sunshine and clouds, with the high temperature of 53°F descending to a low of 38°F. It’s a night game, so it will probably be played in the 40s. The good news is that AccuWeather calls for a 3% chance of precipitation, which is roughly equal to the probability that Penn State will convert more than 30% of its third-down attempts.
The Bottom Line
Boy oh boy, this one is hard to predict. The buoyancy provided by two wins has not led this turkey into irrational exuberance territory by any stretch. We’ll leave that to the Sanguinarians. Remember, in the words of St. Joe, “You’re never as good as you think you are when you win.” It is all too easy to think it’s time to just glide on home.
Let me bring you down to earth with a couple of factoids. First of all, the Buckeyes kicked the shit out of the Nittany Lions. A couple of lucky breaks went Penn State’s way — not total domination, by any stretch. So, get that one out of your head. Second, aside from the fact that Purdue sucks and that we had regarded a win over the Boilermakers a “given” even when we had our doubts about any other game, the Nittany Lions let them hang around in the first half. Having played two good quarters of football — OK, maybe arguably three — out of the past eight is nothing to brag about. No way does it make a win over Iowa a certainty.
Finally, do not let a #20 ranking go to your head. Sportswriters ranking Penn State over Colorado, Oklahoma State, Virginia Tech, and Boise State have their heads up their asses. At least the coaches put Penn State below the first three of those, at #23.
For whatever reason, the bookmakers have established Penn State as seven-point favorites over the Hawkeyes. Give them about three points for home field advantage and they’re straight up favored by a field goal or so. But Beaver Stadium is a huge advantage, which I think is worth more than three points. The over/under is set at 53, which suggests a moderately low scoring game. Sort of like, 30-23, maybe, perhaps. Indeed, Iowa is by all indications a low-scoring team (except against Purdue). Boil everyone’s Purdue game out of the equation and things look quite different, but it won’t be as crappy as that 6-4 game of days of yore. The past few weeks have made fools of all of us, so let’s settle down. Penn State 23, Iowa 20. Take the under.
I’ll be back after the game with a Turkey wrap.