STATE COLLEGE — No. 10 Penn State travels to No. 17 Iowa for a primetime matchup Saturday against a pesky Hawkeyes squad that has played the Nittany Lions close in its last two contests.
Although Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) owns a five-game win streak against Iowa (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten), the last two meetings have been determined by eight points combined.
Penn State’s defensive unit enters the contest on the heels of a 10-sack performance against Purdue. Michigan’s defense last week overwhelmed the Iowa offensive line and recorded eight sacks of Hawkeyes quarterback Nate Stanley.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz knows his offensive line faces a challenge.
“Penn State has got great athletes, and they play hard and can be very disruptive, too,” Ferentz said. “We are going to have to hopefully have a little tighter plan maybe and be a little bit tighter with our technique and a little better, more cohesive in our play.”
Stanley entered last Saturday having thrown 139 passes without an interception before tossing three to the Wolverines. Stanley has faced Penn State twice in his career, where he’s gone 31-of-71 passing for 396 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
“You’re talking about an experienced quarterback who has been there and done that,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “(He) plays with a lot of confidence. Up until last week, he had not thrown an interception this year. He is a big, physical, imposing guy, who has got a strong arm. He’s going to make some throws that you sit there and say, ‘Wow. That was an impressive, big-time throw.’”
The road trip marks the start of a challenging three-game gauntlet for Penn State that also includes contests against No. 16 Michigan and Michigan State.
Penn State has outscored opponents 94-7 through its first two Big Ten contests. The Nittany Lions have been able to do so due to their ability to capitalize on early drives.
Penn State used an early first-quarter interception against Maryland as the catalyst to score on four consecutive drives in the 59-0 rout. Last week against Purdue, the Penn State defense hurried the Boilermakers for a three-and-out of their first drive, and the offense rattled off touchdowns on four straight drives.
Penn State’s strong start can also be attributed to its efficiency in the red zone. The Nittany Lions are 22 of 23 in scoring attempts (.957 percent) when in the red zone, which ranks them eighth in FBS.
Opposing offenses have had little luck scoring against Penn State’s defense.
Through five games, the Nittany Lions have allowed just 37 points, and they’ve yet to yield more than 14 points in a game. The unit ranks second in both the Big Ten and FBS.
“The first thing I would say is that we’re one of only two programs in the country that are ranked in the top five in scoring offense and scoring defense,” Franklin said. “So I think we’re playing at a really high level on both sides of the ball, and I think one complements the other.”
Opponents have recorded just six red-zone attempts against the Hawkeyes this season, where they’ve netted points on five of those trips. Similar to Penn State, Iowa’s defense leads the Big Ten in red-zone defense and it ranks third in FBS. Iowa surrendered its first rushing touchdown of the season last week.
“(We) have so much respect for Kirk Ferentz and their program,” Franklin said. “The consistency that they have had is incredible in a profession where there’s not a whole lot of that left. He’s done an unbelievable job for that university; the consistency on their staff.”
Elton Hayes covers Penn State for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.