Penn State’s Prey 2019: Iowa Hawkeyes
Be honest, the first thing you thought of when you saw that the Nittany Lions will be traveling to Kinnick Stadium this season was the dramatic finish two years ago. Juwan Johnson’s catch as time expired will go down in Penn State football lore forever.
The second thing you probably thought of is how difficult it has been for Penn State to play at Iowa over the years. If it makes you feel better, other championship contenders hate to play there too. Just ask 2016 Michigan and 2017 Ohio State.
This year, Iowa (9-4, 5-4 BIG) will try to build upon the success it had last year. The Hawkeyes have their eyes fixated on the Big Ten West, a division that is ripe for the taking. Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes will have to become road warriors to have a successful season. Iowa is on the road against Iowa State, Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Nebraska; winning 3 out of 5 seems optimistic. That game against Michigan is in Week 6, right before the Lions come to town.
Anyway, the Hawkeyes will play your typical brand of Iowa football, which is a grubby style of play that typically keeps them in the game regardless of their opponent. If the Lions wish to escape Iowa City with a win they will have to try and avoid playing that kind of ugly brand of football. That means scoring TDs instead of FGs in the red zone and not turning the football over.
Offense (31.2 PPG, Returning Starters: 6)
The Iowa offense is never going to possess the flash and big play ability that teams like Penn State can show. However, in order to compete at the top in both the Big Ten and nationally, Iowa will have to be more consistent. A lot of that revolves around senior QB, Nate Stanley. He is just 1-6 against ranked teams in his career. Furthermore, Iowa is only 9-9 in conference games with him at the helm. The Hawkeyes will go as far as Stanley can take them under his wing.
The biggest question is who he will be throwing the football to as two Iowa tight ends were drafted into the NFL. Senior Nate Wieting is the leading returning tight end with a mere 3 career catches. Iowa does bring back two quality receivers in Brandon Smith (31 catches, 376 yards, 2 TDs) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (41 catches, 548 yards, 5 TDs and 16 carries, 112 yards).
Let’s talk about the fat jacks upfront. Offensive tackle, Alaric Jackson has started in 24 games and will anchor the left tackle position. Opposing him at the right tackle position is another stud in Tristan Wirfs, who has 20 starts in his name. The interior of the Iowa offensive line is a little bit more fluid. Tyler Linderbaum, a former coveted defensive tackle recruit, has switched to play center. Cole Banwart, who played guard last year but was moved to center, will be moving back and will start at right guard. At left guard will be Landan Paulsen who has yet to start a game even though he is a senior.
This preview wouldn’t be complete without talking about the offensive line (check) and the fullback position. Iowa brings back senior Brady Ross, whose name just sounds like he was meant to play fullback. He will be blocking for a committee of tailbacks. Most notably, is Mekhi Sargent (159 carries, 745 yards, 9 TDs) who appears to be the most versatile running back. I also like Toren Young (181 carries, 830 yards, 7 TDs) because he runs angry and physically. Young reminds me a lot of Shonn Greene, who still gives me nightmares from that game in 2008.
If Iowa can get their offensive line settled in the interior and can throw enough to keep defenses honest they will be tough to stop. I also realize I could probably type that sentence to explain Iowa’s offense every year.
Defense (17.8 PPG, Returning Starters: 5)
The defense has potential to be special for Iowa if they can find a star at the linebacker position. They return experience, but likes of Kristian Welch (58 tackles, 2 INTS, 1 FF), who has experience at both the will and mike position, have to step up into a more rockstar role that Iowa has come to expect out of their linebackers. Alongside him will be Nick Niemann (48 tackles) and Djimon Colbert (52 tackles) who both have plenty of experience.
Behind them will be three returning starters in the secondary. Fun fact, Iowa has 41 interceptions in the past two seasons. Clearly they are doing something right in pass defense. They will have to replace Amani Hooker who seemed to always be around the football. Matt Hankins (69 tackles, 5 pass breakups) and Michael Ojemudia (73 tackles, 3 INTs, 11 pass breakups) both return at the corner spots. Geno Stone (56 tackles, 5 INTs, 8 pass breakups, 1 FF) also returns at safety.
Finally, we arrive at the defensive line and man is it gonna be stout. Let’s start with the headliner, AJ Epenesa (10.5 sacks last season alone), who didn’t even start last year. He has garnered national attention and if he can keep the same pace as last year then watch out. Iowa fans are hopeful for a possible 20 sack season, which sounds terrifying for opposing teams quarterbacks. The other defensive end, Chauncey Golston (37 tackles, 9 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) is no slouch either and again, didn’t even start last year. The interior has more returning experience but again no returning starters. That’s right, Iowa’s defensive line doesn’t have any returning starters. In some position groups that can be a bad thing, but I think it just motivates these nasty guys even more.
If the front seven is settled, they could cause some havoc on Penn State. If Iowa’s defense can bend but not break…well, buckle up.
This is one of the toughest games to predict because you know that Penn State’s defense is going to keep Iowa in check. The question is going to be whether or not the Lions’ offense decides to play their game or Iowa’s game. Since I don’t know what our offense is going to look like. I am gonna be optimistic and hope that we have enough weapons on the exterior to make enough big plays to keep Iowa’s defense on their heels. Also, there are a lot of players that were in that game in 2017, they should be prepared for what they will face in Iowa City. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another close low scoring game. Gulp.
Penn State Nittany Lions: 24
Iowa Hawkeyes: 17