It is only fitting that Penn State’s final
road game before Halloween should be played in a true house of horrors.
Kinnick Stadium, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes, has long been an unkind destination
for Penn State, with the Nittany Lions leaving Iowa City with their
last win there in 1999. Needless to say, a lot has happened since the
day Downingtown native Aaron Harris sealed a Penn State victory with
a touchdown run down the left sideline.
The Donovan McNabb era started and ran its course. A trip to the Super
Bowl is all but a faded painful memory at this point. The Sixers saw
Allen Iverson lead the team to the NBA Finals, leave town and return…
and leave again. The Phillies ended Philadelphia’s championship drought.
Arena football came to town, went on hiatus and returned again. Professional
soccer also kicked off in town. Temple was kicked out of the Big East
and welcomed back. The Flyers saw a season wiped off the calendar, and
if Penn State loses this weekend they could have a second season erased
Though he has only just joined the program this season, head coach
Bill O’Brien is well aware of the history he has inherited with the
program as it pertains to Iowa.
“It’s a very difficult place to play, as are most of the
places in the Big Ten. It's going to be an electric atmosphere,” O’Brien
said this week. “The crowd noise is definitely going to be a factor,
so we've got to make sure that we deal with that in the right way. So
we've got to practice with crowd noise and make sure that our players
do a great job of communicating offense, defense, and special teams.
But again, it's not going to be anything like what it's like on Saturday
night, so hopefully we can just give them a picture of it, and then
when they get there Saturday night, they have a better understanding
of how to deal with those things.”
Penn State heads to Iowa coming off a bye week, hoping to keep the
momentum going after winning four straight games. The bye week may have
helped the team get a little stronger, with sophomore running back Bill
Belton back to 100 percent ready to add some more options to the offense.
Belton is not the only player who could have used the bye week right
in the middle of the season. O’Brien says the timing of the bye week
was good for his team, who has been playing a physical style since training
“It's better to have it then than it is after the
first game or something like that,” O’Brien said. “I think the
bye week helped a lot of those guys, Billy [Belton] included, and yesterday
Billy did some nice things in practice, as did a lot of those guys that
were banged up.“
Having Belton available will help Penn State try to improve their
rushing production, which ranks 11th in the Big Ten.
Penn State’s running game has shown to drop off following the loss
of Silas Redd to USC and with Belton working through some ankle issues
this season, but the slack has been picked up by continued improved
play of quarterback Matt McGloin.
McGloin enters the week leading the Big Ten in passing
with 429.8 yards per game and 12 touchdowns. He has also avoided being
a turnover machine, with just two interceptions. This week McGloin and
O’Brien’s pass-happy style will take on their toughest test against
the pass so far this season. Iowa ranks fourth in the Big Ten, allowing
just five touchdowns and owning seven interceptions.
The Hawkeyes may also have to try getting their offense going without
their top running back, Mark Weisman, who is doubtful for Saturday night’s
game. He has been cleared to play, but it remains unknown if he will
see any action against Penn State. Then again, this could all be a sly
trick to keep Penn State’s coaching staff guessing and preparing for
the wrong guys. Nobody would put Kirk Ferentz past that sort of mind
game. He’s a competitor and knows how to get an upper hand against
One key to the game this weekend for Penn State will be continuing
to convert inside the red zone. O’Brien has shown no hesitation to
go for it on fourth down, which may have been aided by a struggling
kicking game, but against Iowa it could be the big difference.
Iowa’s red zone defense has struggled this season, allowing teams
to leave the red zone with points on 18 out of 21 trips, including eight
touchdowns and 10 field goals. For Penn State, it could be touchdowns
Penn State’s defense has been the real story of
the season, though. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in red zone defense,
allowing scores just 11 out of 16 times inside the 20-yard line and
allowing opponents inside the red zone just 16 times this season (second
best in the Big Ten; Wisconsin, 14). But of those 11 scores allowed,
nine have been touchdowns for the opponents, which would indicate if
Iowa can get close the odds are good they will pick up a touchdown.
The Hawkeyes have allowed 16 and 13 points in each of their past two
points in Big Ten play and fewer than 20 points five times this season.
Iowa’s defense has frustrated Penn State’s offense over the years
and appears capable of doing the same once again this season.
But that was a vanilla style offense under Joe Paterno,
with a predictable scheme consisting of run-run-pass more often than
not. Against Iowa, mixing it up is critical to keep the front seven
on their toes. That has been one of the big differences under O’Brien,
where the offense is being opened up more so than ever before, and O’Brien
taking full advantage of all four downs more often than ever before
seen in the Penn State program.
It is a new era at Penn State, of course, but will
it be a new theme in Iowa or more of the same?
Penn State plays Iowa at 8:00 p.m. on Big Ten Network.