Leistikow's Week 5 Big Ten picks: Spencer Petras must handle Penn State's blitzes for Iowa to prevail
STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Spencer Petras didn’t hesitate when he was asked about the biggest challenge that Penn State’s defense will present in Saturday’s game at Beaver Stadium.
“They bring a lot of pressure,” the Iowa sophomore quarterback said. “They like to blitz.”
Petras will have to be equally quick making decisions at the line of the scrimmage for the Hawkeyes (2-2) to continue their upward trend and turn back Penn State (0-4) for the first time since 2010.
The last four Iowa quarterbacks to try to beat Penn State have failed. Jake Christensen (2011), James Vandenberg (2012), C.J. Beathard (2016) and Nate Stanley (2017-19) have combined to go 0-6 against the Nittany Lions. The last time Iowa traveled to Penn State, Stanley injured his throwing thumb and had one of the worst games of his 39 starts — 18-for-49 accuracy and a devastating goal-line interception with 3 minutes to go.
The best way for Petras to be ready for Saturday's challenge was via film study. The better he understands what looks are most likely to bring pressure, the easier he can quickly check into productive plays.
Making the right checks against a blitz can pay off big. If six Penn State pass rushers are coming after Petras, chances are that a few of his talented receivers are facing single coverage. If Petras can quickly find those matchups and throw an accurate ball, his receiver might have just one man to beat to score a touchdown.
Penn State has allowed scoring passes of 49, 42, 62 and 45 yards this season.
"Most of the time when teams are blitzing, they're playing a broken (undermanned) coverage,” Petras said. “… So, if we're executing well and identifying the pressures in the pass game, it gives an opportunity for big plays or for easy plays. And then in the run game, there are a lot of good runs away from pressure that I can get us into.”
Understandably, Hawkeye fans may feel uneasy with the game on Petras’ right arm. He has been uneven through four starts. Of the Big Ten Conference’s 13 statistically qualifying quarterbacks, Petras’ 53.7% completion rate ranks dead last. Penn State will surely try to force Petras into similar confusion he felt in the second half against Northwestern, when he threw three interceptions in a crushing 21-20 defeat.
The good news is that Iowa’s offensive line is much better than it was against Penn State a year ago, when poor guard play allowed repeated pressure on both Stanley and the run game. That pressure caused errant passes and a key fumble in the third quarter. The Hawkeyes have allowed just three sacks totaling 11 yards this season.
Will Saturday mark Petras’ breakthrough moment? Or will he become the fifth straight Iowa quarterback to be tagged with a loss against Penn State?
Iowa wins if …
Here are three keys to a Hawkeye victory. (Last week, Iowa hit two of three in beating Minnesota 35-7.)
No. 1: Another 20 for Tyler Goodson. The sophomore running back had 20 carries to gain a career-high 142 yards at Minnesota. That’s good. He only got nine touches against the Nittany Lions last year. Get him 20 on Saturday. That might mean five or six receptions via the screen game against those Penn State blitzes.
No. 2: Break the 40 barrier. Iowa’s longest pass of the season remains at 40 yards, a Goodson wheel-route-and-run in the opener. In 2018, Stanley overshot a sure-touchdown deep ball to T.J. Hockenson, and it came back to bite the Hawkeyes in that 30-24 loss. If Petras gets an open man deep — and he should, against a Penn State defense allowing 7.9 yards per pass attempt — hitting it could mean the difference between victory and defeat.
No. 3: Play the full 60. Penn State has outscored opponents 69-38 in the second half. As the Hawkeyes well know, every minute (and second) counts against the Nittany Lions — who won 21-19 on the game’s final play in 2017.
Penn State wins if …
The Nittany Lions can shake their slow starts. Remarkably, they haven’t led since overtime of their opener against Indiana. They got behind Ohio State 21-3. They trailed in each of their last two losses (Maryland, Nebraska) by 21 at halftime. In all four games, their opponent has scored a touchdown on its opening drive.
If Penn State changes the narrative and gets out fast (or even stops Iowa from scoring), a little early confidence could go a long way for a team desperate to win.
IOWA AT PENN STATE
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m. Central, Big Ten Network
Vegas says: Iowa by 2½ points
Prediction: Iowa 27, Penn State 19 .... In the same week the Vikings' Kirk Cousins snapped an 0-9 string on Monday Night Football as a slight road favorite against my Bears, Iowa will snap its nine-year losing streak against Penn State as a slight road favorite.
Friday’s Big Ten game
Purdue (2-1) at Minnesota (1-3)
Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., BTN
Vegas says: Purdue by 2½
Leistikow says: Purdue now has added quarterback Aidan O'Connell to its injury-mystery list, as we continue to wonder if/when Rondale Moore will play for the Boilermakers. The feeling here is that Minnesota's biggest weakness (run defense) is actually Purdue's worst attribute (run offense). If the Gophers don't win Friday, they could well be on the verge of 1-6 (with Wisconsin and Northwestern next) on the heels of an 11-2 season. That'd be quite the free fall for P.J. Fleck.
Minnesota 28, Purdue 24
Saturday’s other games (times Central)
For the second straight week, Maryland's struggles with COVID-19 have canceled a game. The 2-1 Terps won't play Michigan State (1-3) on Saturday.
Illinois (1-3) at Nebraska (1-2)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox Sports 1
Vegas says: Nebraska by 15½
Leistikow says: Illinois Brandon Peters is eligible to return after missing three games because of a positive COVID-19 test. But now, after Isaiah Williams rushed for 192 yards in a win over Rutgers, Lovie Smith has a decision to make. Nebraska played a very solid game in all phases in knocking off Penn State in quarterback Luke McCaffrey’s starting debut. This is a game worth watching, considering these are the Hawkeyes’ next two opponents.
Nebraska 31, Illinois 24
No. 10 Indiana (4-0) at No. 3 Ohio State (3-0)
Time, TV: 11 a.m., Fox
Vegas says: Ohio State by 20½
Leistikow says: Fun fact, the Hoosiers and Buckeyes haven’t allowed a point since Nov. 7. Indiana’s 24-0 shutout of Michigan State occurred while Ohio State didn’t play because of Maryland’s COVID-19 outbreak. The Buckeyes’ defense, in reality, has been pretty average, and that’ll make a three-touchdown spread against an Indiana team that doesn’t relent tough to cover. This is the de facto Big Ten East title game.
Ohio State 42, Indiana 28
No. 12 Wisconsin (2-0) at No. 20 Northwestern (4-0)
Time, TV: 2:30 p.m., ABC
Vegas says: Wisconsin by 7½
Leistikow says: The winner here likely rules the Big Ten West, unless Wisconsin falls below the six-game threshold to qualify for the conference title game (with remaining matchups against Minnesota, Indiana and Iowa). Wisconsin’s defense has only faced 22 rushing attempts per game, a number that will increase with Northwestern’s patient, grinding offense.
Wisconsin 24, Northwestern 13
Michigan (1-3) at Rutgers (1-3)
Time, TV: 6:30 p.m., BTN
Vegas says: Michigan by 10
Leistikow says: If Jim Harbaugh’s Wolverines needed a get-well opponent, this would be it. They’ve beaten Rutgers by scores of 49-16, 78-0, 35-14, 42-7 and 52-0 during a five-game series win streak. Rutgers has been a nice story, but the numbers still show it has the worst offense in the Big Ten.
Michigan 35, Rutgers 14
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.