It’s not difficult to point to the key matchup when No. 18 Iowa plays Saturday at No. 17 Penn State.
The Nittany Lions (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten), behind fifth-year senior quarterback Trace McSorley, rank second in the conference with an average of 42.6 points a game and third with 480.6 yards a game of offense.
The Hawkeyes (6-1, 3-1) excel on defense, starting with an imposing line.
“It’s the best front that we have faced in two years,” Penn State coach James Franklin said of the Hawkeyes. “They are long, they are physical, they are stout and they make a bunch of plays.”
The Iowa line is anchored by Parker Hesse, who has 31 tackles for a defense that gives up 258.1 yards a game, ranked third in the country, and 14.1 points a game, fifth in the country.
“Everything about him is quality,” Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz said of Hesse. “Any young player in our program, if they want to follow his lead, that would be really well-advised. I can say that about a lot of our guys, but he’s run the race and he’s run it really well. Boy, I’m thrilled he’s on our football team.”
Iowa middle linebacker Jack Hockaday, who has missed two games because of a knee injury, could return.
Nittany Lions receivers Juwan Johnson and DeAndre Thompkins were injured last week against Indiana. Neither has been ruled out for Iowa, but Franklin said some young receivers, including Jahan Dotson, Cam Sullivan-Brown and Daniel George, could see increased playing time.
“This is going to be a big week for them,” Franklin said. “Those guys need to prepare as if they’re going to be starters this week, and then come Thursday and Friday, we’ll make some decisions.”
Nittany Lions struggling on D
It’s a different story on defense for Penn State, which is giving up 392 yards a game, including 554 yards and 32 first downs last week in a 33-28 win at Indiana.
That victory broke a two-game losing streak for the Nittany Lions, two weeks that took Penn State out of any conversation about the College Football Playoff field.
“It was great for our morale, confidence, everything like that,” Penn State safety Nick Scott said of the win over Indiana. “We’re going to use this to fuel us for the last half of the season.”
Iowa has won three games in a row by an average margin of 22 points.
The Hawkeyes have been 6-1 or better three times under Ferentz, in 2002, ’09 and ’15. He took the team to BCS postseason games after the ’02 and ’09 seasons, then the Rose Bowl after the ’15 season.
“Everyone around here realizes the potential we have,” Hesse told the Des Moines Register. “I think that has been focusing us each and every day, making sure we prepare to the best of our abilities.”
The last time these teams met with both ranked was in 2010. Iowa, ranked 17th, beat visiting No. 20 Penn State 24-3. The Hawkeyes have not beaten the Nittany Lions since, losing four times.
–Field Level Media