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Previewing The Enemy: Iowa Hawkeyes

This is the big one, ladies and gentlemen.

After starting its season 5-0 with two ranked victories, No. 4 Penn State football now faces its biggest test of the season up to this point. James Franklin’s group will head to Iowa City to take on No. 3 Iowa this Saturday at Kinnick Stadium at 4 p.m. EST.

Trips to Kinnick are always electric for the Nittany Lions, but this is the first time the two sides will face each other at the venue as top-five teams. In fact, Kinnick hasn’t even hosted a top-five matchup since 1985.

Without further ado, here’s a look at who Penn State will have to beat to improve to 6-0 this weekend.

The Team

Now in his 23rd season as Iowa’s head coach, Kirk Ferentz has his Hawkeyes playing some impressive football this season. Iowa has also stormed out of the gate with a 5-0 record in 2021 and is coming off a 51-14 win last Friday night over Maryland in College Park.

The Hawkeyes forced an absurd seven turnovers in their win over the Terps last weekend which helped them improved their season total to 16. Ferentz’s group already has 12 interceptions this season which is the most in the Big Ten by five.

The name of the game has been defense and winning the field-position battle thus far for the Hawkeyes, but their offense has done what it’s needed to do as well. Junior quarterback Spencer Petras has done a solid job thus far under center, while running back Tyler Goodson has paced Iowa’s offensive efforts.

The numbers aren’t quite eye-popping on that side of the ball, but on defense, coordinator Phil Parker’s group is allowing just 271.4 yards per game. Iowa’s scoring defense is also ranked as the second-best in the nation with just 11.6 points allowed per game up this point, while the Nittany Lions sit just behind it with an even 12 per game.

Outside of the win over Maryland, Iowa also has wins over Colorado State, Kent State, Indiana, and Iowa State. That last victory listed came in week two on the road when the Cyclones were ranked as the ninth-best team in the country.

Offense

Thanks to the absurd turnover margin and the ability to start so many possessions in opponents’ territory, Iowa’s offense hasn’t quite dominated up to this point. The group put 51 points on Maryland last week, but the Hawkeyes totaled a fairly pedestrian 428 total yards of offense, as 17 of those points came off turnovers.

Spencer Petras is now in his second season starting at quarterback for Iowa. After an up-and-down 2020 campaign, Petras has opened this season by throwing just one interception against seven touchdowns and 943 yards through the air. The California native had a bit of a slow start to the season, but he’s only been on an upward trajectory since, as he left the Maryland victory with 259 passing yards and three scores.

Nittany Lion fans will also certainly recognize Iowa’s stud running back, junior Tyler Goodson. A constant in the rushing attack since his freshman season in 2019, Goodson led the Hawkeyes with 762 yards and seven scores in just eight games played in 2020. He also totaled 152 receiving yards on 15 catches.

Goodson is still Iowa’s leading rusher this season, as he’s earned 430 yards on 99 carries in 2021. The 5’10”, 199-pounder already has five touchdowns this season but has been held fairly in check by not totaling more than 66 rushing yards in each of Iowa’s last two games. During week three against Kent State, however, Goodson grabbed three touchdowns along with 153 rushing yards in a dominant performance.

As for Iowa’s wideouts, Brent Pry will likely put most of his attention on Nico Ragaini and Tyrone Tracy Jr. The first of the pair, a junior out of East Haven, Connecticut, is one of only two Hawkeye wide receivers with double-digit catches this season, as he’s totaled 11 grabs worth 132 yards.

Iowa’s biggest passing game target is without question tight end Sam LaPorta. The 6’4″, 249-pound target started in seven games over the course of his first two seasons in Iowa City and has proved himself a viable option in 2021 thus far. LaPorta leads Iowa with 22 catches this season along with two touchdowns. The tight end has three games with at least five catches this season, including a five-catch, 83-yard day in the season opener against Indiana.

The Hawkeyes boast seasoned big fellas across their offensive line, most notably in the form of center Tyler Linderbaum. The redshirt junior has been starting in games for Iowa since 2019 and was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy after a dominant 2020 campaign. PJ Mustipher, Derrick Tangelo, and the rest of Penn State’s defensive tackles will likely see a lot of the clear-cut NFL prospect Saturday afternoon.

Defense

Simply put, Iowa is stacked on this side of the ball.

Starting up front, defensive linemen Zach VanValkenburg and Lukas Van Ness have both impressed so far. The first of the pair, who’s expected to start on the right end for the Hawkeyes, already has 17 total tackles this season and leads the team with five for a loss. As for Van Ness, he’s at the top of Iowa’s sack chart with four already in 2021.

The linebacking core is led by Jack Campbell, Seth Benson, and Jestin Jacobs. The first of the trio, a junior out of Cedar Falls, had added value for the Hawkeyes since his freshman season in 2019 but exploded onto the scene this season with 46 total tackles, a sack, and two fumble recoveries. Benson will start at outside linebacker, as he’s second on the team with 33 total tackles this season. A junior who’s seen action for the Hawkeyes since 2018, Benson will likely be a focal point for Penn State’s offensive line.

John Waggoner and Noah Shannon will also see time on the defensive line for Hawkeyes, as they each have ten tackles so far this season.

Iowa’s impressive front seven has allowed just 87 rushing yards per game thus far this season. The Hawkeyes have also forced three fumbles this year.

As for Iowa’s pass defense, the group is allowing just 184.4 yards through the air per game in 2021. Riley Moss and Matt Hankins are expected to get the starts at the cornerback spots for the Hawkeyes. The pair of seniors, the second of which had 26 starts under his belt entering 2021, have both been everywhere this season.

Moss already has three interceptions this year with two pick-sixes, while Hankins has two but has yet to reach the end zone. Other interceptors on Iowa’s defense include Benson, Jack Koerner, Dane Belton, and Kaevon Merriweather, among several others.

Koerner and Merriweather are listed to get starts at the safety position Saturday at Kinnick. Koerner already has 25 tackles this season along with a pair of pass deflections, while Merriweather has 11 total tackles at the strong spot.

Special Teams

Veteran kicker Caleb Shudak will handle field goal duties Saturday. The redshirt senior has hit all 20 of his extra points this season and is 8-for-9 on field-goal attempts. Shudak’s sole miss came on an attempt from 50+ yards out against Iowa State.

At punter, Penn State will see Tory Taylor. The sophomore from Australia was selected as the Big Ten Punter of the Year following an impressive 2020 campaign and already has 31 attempts this season. Taylor is averaging 47.3 yards per punt this year and has already nailed a career-long of 69 yards. With plenty of attention on the field-position battle against the Hawkeyes, we’ll see how Jahan Dotson and the Nittany Lions’ return squad handle Taylor’s abilities.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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