STATE COLLEGE – It’s been a long time since Penn State has lost three games in a row at Beaver Stadium – 14 years to be exact.
Limping their way to a second straight sub-500 season in 2004, the Nittany Lions fell to Iowa 6-4 in the second of that trifecta of home defeats in a game that set college offenses back 100 years.
Saturday’s opponent happens to be those same Hawkeyes, with Penn State (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) looking to avoid another three-game home losing streak when it takes on Iowa (6-1, 3-1) at 3:30 p.m.
“I’ve got so much respect for (Hawkeyes’ coach Kirk Ferentz) and what he’s been able to do in his career,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “A pretty amazing 20 years he’s been there. I think he’s the longest tenured coach in the country – (and) 16 returning starters off last year’s team.”
Franklin is 2-0 against Ferentz and the Hawkeyes, including last year’s thriller where Penn State won in walk-off fashion in Iowa City. But this weekend’s matchup could prove to be the most difficult game in the series since Franklin’s tenure began.
Iowa has won its last three games since falling to Wisconsin on Sept. 22, just a week before Penn State dropped a tight one to Ohio State.
The last three weeks have seen the Hawkeyes outscore opponents 113-47, including last week’s 23-0 shutout of Maryland. Iowa is very much in the thick of things for a Big Ten West division title.
Unlike seasons past, when Iowa has relied on a strong defense and a steady ground game, quarterback Nate Stanley and tight end Noah Fant have helped add a new dimension to what the Hawkeyes can produce on offense.
“Their offensive coordinator (Brian Ferentz) has done a really nice job for them over the last couple years,” Franklin said. “I think they’ve only allowed six sacks, the fewest in the Big Ten this year.
“The quarterback, Nate Stanley, has really increased his completion percentage from 55 percent to 61 percent this year, and then obviously their tight ends are what make them go on offense. Both (T.J) Hockenson and Fant are really nice complementary pieces for each other. Fant may be the best receiving tight end in the country, and then Hockenson does a really good job, as well. Hockenson does a really good job at both (blocking and receiving). He’s extremely physical. He’s nasty, but makes a bunch of plays for them and brings the mentality to their offense.”
Fant, in particular, will be a focus point for Penn State’s defense. He led all tight ends in the country in 2017 with 16.5 yards per catch average, and 11 touchdown receptions, which is also an Iowa tight end record.
“After studying them for a while on Sunday, we just noticed they’re big, physical tight ends, old school, Big Ten-type tight ends that they’re going to be keeping in a lot of the game,” Lions’ cornerback Amani Oruwariye said. “They can block. They’re physical and athletic to go out and catch the ball. We’re going to prepare for them, game-plan just like any other week, and I think we’ll be ready come Saturday.”
For Penn State’s offense, a struggling passing attack will face a stern test against the Hawkeyes – ranked No. 3 in the country in total defense.
They’re also No. 14 in the country in sacks, averaging 3.14 a game with 22 on the season.
“Their front seven really is extremely impressive, kind of how they play with their size, strength and ability, and their back end does a really good job of making you earn it in the passing game,” Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley said.
“They’re not getting beat deep. Guys aren’t getting behind them. So from an offensive perspective, they pose a lot of challenges as far as how you’re going to block them up front with their ability and size and all that. You’ve really got to earn it on offense in the passing game and in the running game. That’s what they did last year to us – made us earn everything.”
Vincent Lungaro covers Penn State football for CNHI Pennsylvania media properties. Follow him on Twitter @VinceLungaro.