Iowa defense wary of No. 20 Penn State University’s big play abilities
By TRAVIS JOHNSON
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Most of Penn State’s players saw the first College Football Ranking and their team’s No. 12 CFP ranking on Twitter, the same platform many of them used to commit to the school a few years ago when national attention was focused on off-field scandal rather than on-field success.
“It’s awesome,” linebacker Jason Cabinda said. “It’s great to get recognition for a bunch of guys who are working really hard, But right now it obviously doesn’t mean a whole lot to us being (early) November.”
With four games left, the No. 20 Nittany Lions (6-2, 4-2 Big Ten) will try to inch closer to the four-team playoff by keeping pace in a tight Big Ten East race on Saturday night against Iowa (5-3, 3-2 Big Ten). The Hawkeyes are trying to keep their playoff chances alive, too. They’re not out of contention in the West yet and are among four two-loss teams trailing No. 9 Nebraska for a berth in the Big Ten title game.
“We’ve got our hands full right now,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “They’ve won four straight ball games. They’re playing really well. They’re in sync and playing with great confidence, rightfully so.”
Ferentz is 8-4 against the Nittany Lions and expressed disappointment earlier this week that conference realignment has prevented the two teams from playing since 2012. This is a much deeper, talented Penn State team than the one Ferentz last saw in person, however. That team, coached by Bill O’Brien, was operating at a high pace despite playing with numerous walk-on players in the wake of NCAA sanctions that prompted transfers after the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal.
“They’ve got guys that look the part and play the part,” Ferentz said.
And it’s a much different team than the one that shows up on film from earlier this season. The emergence of quarterback Trace McSorley coupled with improved offensive line play has complemented star running back Saquon Barkley nicely. Ferentz knows Iowa’s defense could have its hands full as its front can’t sell out to stop Barkley like teams did earlier this season.
“If you do, you’re going to pay for it,” Ferentz said. “I’ve seen a lot of big plays they’ve been able to create, whether it’s the receivers, tight end, or the quarterback just keeping it. So you’re focused on the running back, and there’s a lot more to it.”
DUELING ‘BACKERS: Both defensive fronts are led by stalwart linebackers and this game will feature two of the conference’s best tacklers. Iowa’s Josey Jewell is second in the Big Ten with 77 tackles while Cabinda, who’ll play his third-straight game after missing five of the first six with a broken thumb, is averaging 11 stops per game.
SAVAGE DOGS: Penn State’s defensive linemen, while undersized, have learned to use their speed to disrupt and will try to do so against a banged up Iowa offensive line. Defensive coordinator Brent Pry has been crafty, calling stunts, delayed blitzes and zone blitzes to take advantage of Penn State’s athleticism up front. Garrett Sickels has come off the bench each of the last two games and has been a force with 12 tackles, 4 1/2 for losses and 2 1/2 sacks. Iowa’s used six different starting combinations up front but could get tackle Boone Myers back following extra rest provided by the bye week.
OFF TACKLE: Andrew Nelson’s season-ending knee injury a few weeks ago could’ve spelled doom for Penn State’s offensive line. Instead, the Nittany Lions have made a strong push up front without their veteran leader. Brendan Mahon, who struggled at left tackle earlier this season, has moved over and has been a key component to the team’s outside rushing success. Barkley ran for 195 of his 207 yards last week to Mahon’s side.
ENDING A STREAK: A streak will be snapped. Iowa’s won nine straight road games, the second-best stretch in the country while Penn State has won five straight at Beaver Stadium.
IN OR OUT: Penn State’s top deep threat DeAndre Thompkins is probably for this game after he suffered an upper body injury against Ohio State. He missed the Purdue game but was listed on the team’s depth chart.