#4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0 B10) vs. #3 Iowa (5-0, 2-0)
Yeah, I’m kidding. Seems like there’s another “game of the century” every two weeks or so. However, despite the nonsensical early season rankings, this pseudo-grudge match lines up two Big Ten opponents who have somehow floated into the Top Four. I don’t expect either to end the season anywhere near this lofty perch.
Both have strong defenses, positive turnover ratios, good special teams, and good coaching. (Shaddup, Franklin haters!). On the other hand, both have suspect offenses.
Penn State has certainly struggled getting its running game in gear behind an offensive line that does an excellent job of pass blocking but gets no push on the run, continually landing in the bottom quintile of NCAA rankings in rushing offense. Iowa is right there, too. averaging 126 yards per game. On the other hand, Penn State’s total yardage output has been stellar compared to Iowa’s, the latter averaging only 320 total yards per game.
Both teams reek at third down conversions, where Iowa ranks 89th and Penn State is right behind them at 91st. Two half-assed offenses meet in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, where there will be a big game atmosphere, but folks, these offensive numbers do not portend well for big game production.
Two half-assed offenses against two stifling defenses. Iowa ranks second nationally in scoring defense, allowing 11.6 points per game. Penn State is right behind them at #3, allowing 12. Iowa has the better rushing defense, allowing an average of 87 yards per game, while Penn State allows 111.6. The Hawkeyes rank 27th in passing yards allowed at 184.4 per game, which is better than PSU’s 202.6. The biggest disparity when comparing defenses is Iowa’s putrid red zone defense, which allows opponents to score 90% of the time once inside the 20. In this category, Penn State ranks second in the nation, getting torched only 53% of the time.
Iowa has three defensive touchdowns this year in five games, two on pick sixes and one on a fumble recovery. Penn State has one. In overall turnover margin, Iowa leads the nation with a margin of twelve through five games. Penn State’s is half that. Iowa also leads the nation in pass interceptions, picking the ball off twelve times in five games, five more than PSU. However, Penn State has yet to play Maryland, who pumped up Iowa’s numbers significantly.
The picture should be clear at this point. These two might both be over-ranked, with similar strengths and weaknesses, and a slight advantage to Iowa, as the above diatribe plus the national rankings suggest. Alas, there is a helluva gap between the SEC powerhouses at #1 and #2 and the rest of the football world.
Will the Explosive Play Fetish Do Penn State In?
It well might. Running low percentage plays against an opportunistic defense that sucks up interceptions like a gigantic shop vac is a formula for failure. If Penn State digs too deep a hole, there will be no digging out. This game will go to the side with fewer mistakes or whoever gets lucky with big plays. Sanguinarian bubble-bursting alert: it might end here!
Although Penn State ran for over two hundred yards last weekend against Indiana, they were unsuccessful when attempting to run up the gut. I cannot say enough about establishing the run and keeping the defense up so those long, “explosive” plays are enabled. It looks like it won’t happen this year, though. The damn sportswriters undoubtedly considered this when they leapfrogged Iowa over Penn State. And James Franklin was frankly frank about it in all frankness. Forsooth! At his presser, he described the flaw in the 2021 Nittany Lions that needs the most work: the ability to sustain drives (suggesting that Time of Possession is not “increasingly irrelevant” after all).
Franklin spoke about working on time of possession to give the defense a break. In a puntfest with Iowa, three-and-outs in our own territory will be problematical. If I see Franklin calling a fourth-and-one running play from Penn State territory, I’ll still accuse him of balls over brains, but will he pull that out against the Iowa defense? In any case, recognition of one’s ailments is the first step toward curing them. Let’s hope he’s serious.
Coaching on Both Sides
Kirk Ferentz is the wise old owl of Iowa football and of Big Ten coaching. His teams might win ugly, but they play sound football with few errors. Thing is, though, James Franklin has repeatedly failed the test in games against ranked opponents, especially on the road. Seven road losses to ranked teams versus one win (Northwestern in 2017) give the Franklin detractors something to hang their hat on with their predictions that PSU will be outcoached in this game.
This Turkey being a non-Sanguinarian realist, I feel that the Lions must perform flawlessly in a hostile, raucous, big-game environment to win this one. Tall order for the visitors.
Saturday is shaping up to be a fine, Native American Indigenous Summer Day in Iowa City, even a little hot, with a high of 85, which is about where it should be at game time.
Da Bottom Line
Yeah, so the Official Turkey Poop Prediction is between a rock and a hard place this week. Our buddies from Iowa are in similar straits. Anyone who tells you definitively how this game is going to go is a lyin’ sumbitch.
So, this Turkey being in a quandary, I’m looking toward the gamblers for guidance. The spread is Iowa – 2. Why, that’s barely home field advantage, painting the two teams as pretty much dead even. The over/under at Caesar’s is 41. This works out to a break-even at Iowa 22, Penn State 19. Do you see this as a lower scoring game? I do. I like the under and I like Iowa winning 16-14.
(I’ll be back maybe probably around Sunday with sparkling commentary about the game ex post facto).