Five Things: Penn State vs Iowa

By: Thomas Frank Carr
Beat Writer

  1. Pulling Out All The Stops

Consider this a hunch. Iowa will throw some uncharacteristically ‘Iowa’ plays out on offense. This is their chance to beat a team that embarrassed them last year at Beaver Stadium, and to make a statement to the nation. Anything from a double reverse, to running the wildcat, there is just a feeling that Iowa has something for the Nittany Lions.

For Penn State, they live in a constant state of ‘trick plays’. The Tommy Stevens Project* will have a new wrinkle this week with near certainty.

  1. Nate Stanley

Iowa’s new starting quarterback this year is sophomore Nate Stanley. As far as typical Iowa quarterbacks go, he’s slightly above average. He’s a big kid, standing at 6’5”, 235 and has a strong arm. He’s paired with a typical strong Iowa running game, has head coach James Franklin commented this week.

“I think [running the football] is what Iowa prides themselves on and being really physical up front. Coach Ferentz is one of the more well respected line coaches in the country from his NFL time, and his teams have always been great up front,” Franklin said at his weekly press conference.

The Iowa line has been banged up this year to start the season. Saturday’s game vs Penn State will be the first time all season that they will repeat the same starting five in consecutive week. Senior right tackle Ike Boettger is out with an injury presumably for the season. He’s been replaced by All-Big 10 guard Sean Welch.

The reality is that you know what you’re going to get from the Iowa running game. They’ll be technically sound, tough and have a modicum of talent. Stanley is the wildcard. If he can effectively execute play fakes, and manage the Iowa passing game, Iowa has a shot to stay in the game. His tight end Nate Stanley will be a big part of that.

  1. Runaway Train: Mike Gesicki

With two touchdowns through the first two games, Mike Gesicki got off to a fast start to start the season. Despite that, we haven’t seen Gesicki stretch down the field with much consistency. This week he will be facing an Iowa team with some fresh faces in the secondary.

Jake Gervase was benched for his poor play through the first three weeks of the season. He’ll be replaced this week by sophomore Amani Hooker. If the Nittany Lions can get a favorable look down the middle of the field with Gesicki open between the linebackers and in front of the safeties, expect Trace McSorley to take more shots down the field to his big tight end.

Don’t expect him to miss like he did vs Pitt.

  1. Getting Defensive

The Penn State defense is currently allowing only 4.7 points per game. That’s astounding compared to what they were doing last year. They still are struggling vs the run, giving up 187 rushing yards per game. Part of that is due to the fact that teams simply can’t throw on the Nittany Lions this year. Yet is undeniable and impossible to ignore that Penn State has not been as stout against the run this year as they were last year. That was exacerbated in the first quarter of last week’s game when Torrence Brown went down with an injury. He’s been the Nittany Lions best run defender through the first two weeks of the season. Parker Cothren has done a good job clogging up run lanes, but Brown has played with the aggression and strength needed to make plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

He would have been a key player this week vs Iowa. Now it’s up to Ryan Bucholtz and co. to fill in for the junior defensive end. If the Nittany Lions can’t play with discipline and contain Akrum Wadley on the perimeter, Iowa will be firmly in this game.

  1. Saquon Barkley, Running Back

Saquon Barkley has been as electric as advertised in the 2017 season, but not as a running back. Barkley hasn’t topped 100 yards rushing since the opening game vs Akron. He’s more than made up for it in the passing game with three receptions of over 40 yards, two for touchdowns.

The fact of the matter is that it’s more about stats this year than any other for the junior tailback. He’s entering the 2nd quarter of his presumed final season in Happy Valley and is the best shot that Penn State has had for a Heisman winner since the 90’s. Stats matter, but the right stats matter more. Barkley needs to top 100 yards with the entire country watching on Saturday.

As we’ve chronicled over the course of the past four years, the problem is up front. The Nittany Lions have not been able to get consistent push in the running game for quite some time. Franklin belives that having veteran Brendan Mahon back at guard vs Iowa will give us a clearer picture of what his line can accomplish,

“I think not having [Brendan] Mahon last week caused some challenges for us. On top of that, we moved [Steven] Gonzalez over to the opposite guard, and I think that affected him a little bit…but I don’t think there’s any doubt that we have to get better at consistently running the ball between the tackles, and I think having Mahon back, who is such an experienced player and such a strong, physical guy; that we feel good about what we’re going to do.

Here’s a stat for you on the progress of the offensive line-

On non ‘chunk’ runs (over 12 yards) Barkley has 19 touches for 70 yards in the past two games. That’s good for a very average 3.9 yards per carry.

While that is the equivalent of saying “Take those touchdowns away and we would have won”, argument from your flag football league, it is telling. The team is not consistent running the ball. It contributes to everything from the team’s inability to convert on 3rd down, to their sometimes frustratingly stilted drives.  To be a dominant team, and to have a chance to put another Heisman trophy on the shelf, the Penn State offense must get better at running the ball with consistency.

*Tommy Stevens Project sounds like a killer name for a band.