Iowa at Penn State (-6.5)
Sat. 10/27, 3:30 p.m. ET
Three things to know before betting on Iowa-Penn State:
1. It’s been a tough few weeks for Penn State. First, the Nittany Lions suffered extremely tight home losses to Ohio State and Michigan State. Then last week as a two-touchdown favorite at Indiana, the Nittany Lions needed to survive a last-minute onside kick in order to emerge with a narrow 33-28 win. Now Penn State faces Iowa, which has momentum after winning three straight against some Big Ten lightweights. Despite the low-quality competition, Iowa still found a way to impress, winning all three by at least 17 points to improve to 6-1 against the spread on the season. A 42-16 win at Indiana as a four-point favorite two weeks ago is obviously a few steps up from how the Nittany Lions fared in Bloomington, and a 23-0 win over Maryland last week showed the Hawkeyes stifling one of the conference’s more explosive offenses.
When Iowa visits Happy Valley on Saturday, it will have some ATS trends working in its favor. Since the 2014 season, road underdogs that allowed 75 or fewer rushing yards in their previous game are 40-14 ATS in games featuring two teams who out-rushed opponents by 50-plus yards per game on the season. Over the same time frame, home favorites with winning records are only 35-71 ATS after losing two of their last three games.
2. Penn State’s young defense has exceeded expectations this season. But the D has a habit for showing weakness at precisely the wrong time. In its opener, Penn State allowed 28 points in the fourth quarter to Appalachian State. Against Ohio State, it allowed two touchdowns in the game’s final seven minutes to give the Buckeyes a one-point win. Then last week, Indiana’s offense made the Nittany Lions look bad for almost the entire game. The Hoosiers finished with 554 total yards and 32 first downs.
While Iowa’s offense isn’t the team’s strength, it is at least trending in the right direction, unlike the Nittany Lions’ D. Three weeks ago, Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley threw four touchdowns in a 48-31 win at Minnesota. Two weeks ago, he threw for an incredible six TDs in the win at Indiana. Stanley is now fourth among Big Ten quarterbacks with a 149.1 passer rating, which isn’t where many observers thought he would be before the season started.
3. Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley is far better known than Stanley but ranks eighth in the Big Ten with a 128.2 rating. He still has a reputation as a gunslinger, but that’s not the kind of player he is these days. In the 2016 season, McSorley completed 38 passes of 30-plus yards, tied for second in the country. This year, he ranks 66th with eight throws of 30 or more yards.
That’s not to say that McSorley is no longer an excellent player. Even though Penn State lost, McSorley played well against Ohio State. He might have even led the team to victory if PSU coach James Franklin made better play calls late in the game. McSorley is also one of the country’s best runners at his position, ranking sixth among quarterbacks with 79.1 rushing yards per game.
Running is the focus of Penn State’s attack, with tailback Miles Sanders compiling 110.3 rushing yards per game on an average of 17 carries. He ripped off runs of 78 and 42 yards to give PSU a first-half lead against Michigan State two weeks ago.
Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, Iowa is perfectly suited to stop their ground game. The Hawkeyes are allowing only 2.72 yards per carry to opponents, the sixth-best mark in FBS. Maryland entered last week’s game against Iowa averaging 245.2 rushing yards per game on over six yards per carry, and Iowa held the Terrapins to 68 rushing yards on three yards per carry. When it comes to stopping long run plays specifically, Iowa is unmatched: The Hawkeyes have only allowed one run of 20-plus yards all season, something no other team has done.
Last year, Penn State needed a last-second touchdown to win 21-19 in Iowa City as a 12.5-point favorite. While the Nittany Lions’ talent advantage means they’ll almost always be favored over Iowa, they’ll need to grind for a full 60 minutes once again to top this Hawkeyes team. Even if they win outright, it’s unlikely that Penn State will cover.
Pick: Iowa +6.5
Confidence Level: Moderate (on a scale of Low/Moderate/High/Very High/Extremely High)