Four things the football teams from Iowa and Penn State can do to put themselves in a position for success in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game at Beaver Stadium.
Penn State (5-2, 2-2)
1. Follow the leader
Trace McSorley continues to rewrite the Penn State record book, but what the senior quarterback brings to the Nittany Lions is measured in more than rushing yards and pass completion rates.
With his leadership, McSorley is two wins away from matching Todd Blackledge’s school record of 29 wins as a starting quarterback that was set from 1980-82.
The 6-foot, 201-pound Virginia native already owns the Penn State career passing yards record with 8,830 yards and his 10,283 yards of total offense is 312 yards away from bumping Illinois’ Juice Williams out of 10th place on the Big Ten’s all-time list.
2. Dig in defensively
Penn State’s top six tacklers this season are not among the Nittany Lions returning defensive starters from a year ago, illustrating the turnover Penn State is dealing with on defense.
Junior tackles Kevin Givens and Robert Windsor and two underclass ends, junior Shareef Miller and Yetur Gross-Matos, are part of a productive pass rush but inconsistencies have left the Nittany Lions 10th in the Big Ten in defending the run.
Penn State is allowing 165.1 yards per game on the ground, a number that coach James Franklin said his team must reduce if it hopes to deal with a schedule that following Saturday’s game with Iowa with match-ups against Michigan on the road and Wisconsin at home the next two weeks.
3. Be balanced
Penn State has played its way to a 5-2 start in part because of the effectiveness it has had on offense.
The Nittany Lions average 480.6 yards per game, third best in the Big Ten, and are the conference’s second-best scoring team at 42.6 points per game.
A balanced attack has created that productivity. Penn State is second in the Big Ten in rushing, averaging 240.7 yards to complement the 239.3 yards the Nittany Lions are averaging through the air.
Freshman Miles Sanders is third in the league in rushing at 110.3 yards per game while McSorley averages 79.1 yards and 14 carries per game.
4. Create chaos
Penn State’s defense has been disruptive, leading the Big Ten and ranking 10th among Football Bowl Subdivision programs with an average of 8.4 tackles for a loss per game.
That includes the conference-leading 3.57 sacks per game Penn State has managed, a number that rates third in the country. Defensive end Shaka Toney enters the Iowa game after tying a school single-game record for sacks with four in the fourth quarter of a 33-28 win at Indiana last week.
Toney has 7.5 tackles for a loss this season, while Gross-Matos and Miller share the team lead with 8.5 apiece.
Iowa (6-1, 3-1)
1. Establish the run
It’s who the Hawkeyes are and on a grass turf which may be a little on the slippery side given that up to one inch of rain is in the forecast before game time Saturday, establishing a rushing attack may provide Iowa with its best hope of earning its first win over Penn State since 2010.
The return of Ivory Kelly-Martin from an injury last week led the Hawkeyes to a season-high 224 rushing yards. He’ll continue to team with Toren Young and Mekhi Sargent in an offense that averages 165.4 yards per game on the ground.
Iowa’s ability to gain some traction on the ground will help quarterback Nate Stanley make connections through air.
2. Be stingy
Defensive consistency has led the Hawkeyes to a 6-1 start and against a potent Penn State offense, Iowa will need to play to its strengths.
The Hawkeyes rank second in the nation this week in defending the run, allowing 79.6 yards per game on the ground and only two teams are allowing fewer than the 258.1 total yards opponents are gaining on average against Iowa.
Most importantly, the Hawkeyes have built a wall at the end zone. Iowa leads the Big Ten and ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense, giving up 14.1 points per game.
Iowa has been particularly stingy on the ground, allowing opponents to gain 2.7 yards per carry, sixth nationally. The Hawkeyes join Alabama and Auburn as the only defenses in the country to have allowed just three rushing downs on the season.
3. Stay special
Both Iowa and Penn State have effective kick return units, among special teams the Hawkeyes will need solid performances from if it hopes to give Pennsylvania native Kirk Ferentz his fifth win in eight games he has coached against the Nittany Lions in his home state.
Despite getting only one chance in the Hawkeyes’ shutout of Maryland last week, Iowa’s Ihmir Smith-Marsette continues to lead the country with an average of 33.3 yards and as a team, Iowa leads all FBS programs with an average of 30.89 yards per return. Penn State ranks seventh nationally, averaging 28.41 yards on its kick returns.
The Hawkeyes currently rank sixth in the Big Ten in punt returns with an average of 6.8 yards and punter Colten Rastetter is fourth in the conference with his average of 43.6 yards on 21 punts.
Iowa kicker Miguel Recinos is sixth in the league with a 76.9-percent success rate on field goal attempts, hitting 10 of the 13 he has tried with a long of 48 yards.
4. Live for the moment
With no Michigan, no Ohio State and no Michigan State on the schedule this season, this is Iowa’s lone hope to earn a statement-making victory against one of the top teams in the Big Ten East.
Iowa has won its last three Big Ten road games, but hasn’t beaten a rated opponent away from Kinnick Stadium since winning 40-10 at 20th-ranked Northwestern on Oct. 17, 2015.
Hawkeye players spent a lot of time this week talking about welcoming the chance to earn a signature victory. Saturday presents the next opportunity to accomplish that objective.