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The unbeaten Hawkeyes face their biggest test of the young season, with No. 4 Penn State coming into Kinnick for a Saturday night bout. Zack Creglow

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — The best defense is a good offense.

That’s Iowa’s mantra — and challenge — Saturday when No. 4 Penn State comes into Kinnick Stadium looking for another splashy prime-time victory over the Hawkeyes and a Big Ten Conference-opening win.

The Hawkeyes’ methodical offense must keep grinding out first downs the way it has on a historic pace in recent weeks. That’s the only way to ensure the Nittany Lions’ quick-strike attack will be stuck on its own sideline.

It’s called complementary football, and Iowa has excelled at it during a 3-0 start. The offense has held the ball for more than 35 minutes per game to rank sixth in the nation. It has done so by converting 48 percent of its third downs, good for 24th in the country.

And in Iowa’s past two wins — at Iowa State and against North Texas — sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley has helped find a way to produce a whopping 57 first downs. That’s the highest two-game total in Kirk Ferentz’s 19-year run as Hawkeyes head coach.

The task becomes significantly harder Saturday.

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Iowa center James Daniels was engaged in a little complimentary football this week, comparing the Penn State defense to Michigan’s and Florida’s from last season.

“Those are the only three teams that have D-linemen and linebackers that can move, and have the speed and strength how Penn State does,” Daniels said.

“You just have to focus on your fundamentals every play. Penn State, the D-linemen they have, if you’re high on one play, they’re going to throw you and make a good play. With all due respect to North Texas, Wyoming and Iowa State, we have not played (against) the type of players we’re going to play Saturday.”

That’s the game in a nutshell. The Nittany Lions’ offense deservedly draws raves for the 18 touchdowns it has produced during a 3-0 start. But its defense has quietly surrendered only one.

Last November, Penn State rolled up 599 yards of offense in a 41-14 home rout against Iowa. But the Hawkeye offense didn’t help matters by rushing for only 30 yards, converting 2-of-10 third downs and holding the ball for a mere 25 minutes.

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Those numbers need to change drastically for the Hawkeyes (3-0) to have a chance at upsetting a 12.5-point favorite in a 6:42 p.m. kickoff of a game being shown to the nation on ABC.

“We were humiliated after that game and, human nature, you want to avenge that loss,” Hawkeyes defensive end Parker Hesse said, acknowledging that his offense could help things considerably by maintaining its early ball-hogging ways.

“The way our offense played, it really helped the entire defense, lighten the load on us all,” Hesse said of last Saturday’s 31-14 win over North Texas, when the Hawkeyes held possession for nearly 41 minutes.

“(Penn State is) a really explosive team, and having them on the sidelines is going to help us tremendously defensively. I think our offense, that’s their style of play. They can certainly do that.”

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Defensive end Parker Hesse discusses that and the feel of night games at Kinnick. Chad Leistikow/The Register

Iowa has done it the old-fashioned way: by establishing the run, which makes play-action passes more effective, which ultimately leads to a balanced attack that keeps defenses off-balance.

The Hawkeyes are averaging 180 yards rushing and 218 passing through three games. Tailback Akrum Wadley has 410 yards from scrimmage and will be Iowa’s first option for sustaining drives, especially with his main backup, James Butler, out with an elbow injury.

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But it’s up to Stanley, who has shown a remarkable calm in his first three starts, to keep it all flowing against a Nittany Lions defense he described as “super physical.”

“I think it’s obviously pretty big to get a fast start,” Stanley said of something Iowa was unable to do in last year’s Penn State loss, when it fell behind 21-0. “Being able to go out and put points on the board early just builds confidence for the rest of the game.”

None of this is to suggest that Iowa’s defense doesn’t need to be much sharper than a year ago. Even if that unit is asked to be on the field for only 25 minutes Saturday, Penn State has shown that is plenty of time for it to rack up points.

The Nittany Lions, featuring star tailback Saquon Barkley (548 yards from scrimmage, five touchdowns), are averaging a gaudy 8.3 yards per play and have gotten a first down on first down 46 percent of the time.

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You don’t have to tell Iowa they can move the football in a hurry. Last year, Penn State scored five touchdowns against the Hawkeyes in drives that consumed 10:06.

Iowa’s offense must chew up the clock; the defense can’t afford to bite on Penn State’s deception.

“Everybody has got to be on the same page,” Ferentz said of his defense. “When you play a guy like a guy that's the running back from Penn State, he's going to make some plays on his own because he's not your average back.

“What we can't do is just give him stuff that's uncontested. If we do that, I can already tell you what the result is going to be. It's easy to predict. And it's the same with their tight end (Mike Gesicki). He's a big target. He's going to make some big plays just because of his height (6-foot-6). … If you just let them go where they want to go, it's going to be really difficult for us, so we're going to have to try to be a little bit disruptive that way. But again, easier said than done.”

No one said it was going to be easy. But if the Hawkeyes are to win Saturday, the offense has to give the defense some opportunities to rest easy.

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NO. 4 PENN STATE (3-0) AT IOWA (3-0)

WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City

TIME/TV: 6:42 p.m., ABC (announcers: Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Maria Taylor)

LINE: Nittany Lions by 12 ½

WEATHER: 91 degrees and partly cloudy, temperatures gradually dropping to 66; winds from south-southeast at 5 to 10 mph

OF NOTE: Iowa is 10-4 in home night games.

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