Penn State gets first test against Top 25 team
IOWA CITY, Iowa — Penn State has beaten its first five opponents by nearly 40 points per game.
The Nittany Lions’ next three games might not be quite so easy.
No. 10 Penn State’s playoff hopes likely will hinge on how it performs during a brutal stretch that begins Saturday at 17th-ranked Iowa. The Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) will be the first Top-25 team the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0) face this season, and they will be followed by a home date with No. 16 Michigan and a trip to Michigan State.
Iowa also will represent the biggest test yet for quarterback Sean Clifford and Penn State’s high-flying offense. The Hawkeyes are third nationally in scoring defense at 8.8 points a game, behind Wisconsin (5.8) and the Nittany Lions (7.4) in coach Kirk Ferentz’s 21st season in charge.
“It’s amazing. You put the tape on, especially on the defensive side of the ball, it looks the same as it did four years ago,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “I hope that (doesn’t) come off the wrong way, because I mean that as the ultimate compliment. They do what they do, and they do it really well.”
Iowa’s defense was brilliant in last week’s 10-3 loss at Michigan, holding the Wolverines to 267 yards. The Hawkeyes were pitiful on offense as senior quarterback Nate Stanley threw his first three interceptions of the season. Iowa also allowed eight sacks and finished with 1 yard rushing.
“The negative yardage plays are always going to affect you,” Ferentz said. “Part of that was our lack of execution. Maybe part of that’s Michigan, being a really athletic, aggressive defensive team. But that being said, we are looking at the same kind of opponent this week.”
Clifford, a first-year starter, leads the Big Ten with 288.6 yards a game, and his 16 yards per completion ranks sixth nationally. But Iowa excels at defending the pass. The Hawkeyes are giving up 5.9 yards per attempt and have as many interceptions, four, as passing touchdowns allowed.
“Looks like he’s got a great future, so hopefully we can find a way to slow him down a little bit,” Ferentz said of Clifford.
Iowa and Penn State have been known to put on a show. The Nittany Lions won in Iowa City in 2017 on a walk-off touchdown pass from Trace McSorley, and last year Stanley threw a pick at Penn State’s goal line with 3:18 left as the Nittany Lions survived 30-24.
Iowa has lost five straight in the series, but prior to that, the Hawkeyes won eight of nine in the series — including a last-second 24-23 win in 2008 that knocked Penn State out of the national title chase.