Leistikow's Iowa football vs. Penn State prediction: 5 reasons Hawkeyes' offense is equipped for top-five matchup

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY — A quiet confidence seemed present with Iowa football players this week, ahead of the biggest game to date of their college lives. 

Center Tyler Linderbaum reported Tuesday that, “Our first two practices have been awesome so far.” As Kirk Ferentz always preaches, you practice how you play. Keep that quote in mind Saturday when No. 3 Iowa hosts No. 4 Penn State (3 p.m. CT, Fox).

Coming off the heels of a 51-point night (accrued in barely more than three quarters in Maryland), the Iowa offense faces an elite defense. Penn State is fresh off a 24-0 shutout of Indiana and ranks No. 3 nationally in scoring defense (12.0 points per game, just behind No. 2 Iowa’s 11.6).

Yet tight end Sam LaPorta spoke Tuesday about how he is seeing the same Nittany Lions on film that he saw last year in person when Iowa shellacked Penn State, 41-21, in a near-empty Beaver Stadium. LaPorta said simply of this week, “We’re excited for the opportunity. There’s some stuff out there for us.” 

There is a feeling that with points at a premium Saturday, the 119th-ranked Iowa offense is in the spotlight. Here are five reasons to think that the Hawkeyes can put enough points on the board to support their stingy defense.

No. 1: The Tyler Goodson factor. Could this be his biggest moment yet as a Hawkeye? The junior running back flashed some amazing footwork at Maryland and his pull-away speed on a 67-yard touchdown catch.

“He's obviously a really explosive player,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. “Runs good routes.”

Goodson’s ability as a receiver gives Iowa a play-calling wild card, much like Akrum Wadley was in a top-five win vs. an active and athletic Michigan defense in 2016.

Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum has a huge matchup Saturday against Penn State's interior defensive linemen.

No. 2: Linderbaum can neutralize Penn State’s best game-wrecker. P.J. Mustipher is the 326-pound anchor of the Nittany Lions’ defensive line and has 21 tackles in the run game. But Linderbaum is elite.

“Their center is as good as I've seen,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “…So that will be an interesting matchup that I think will play a big part in this game.”

Iowa’s 2019 chances were wrecked by poor guard play in a 17-12 loss. The Hawkeyes are better equipped to handle the Nittany Lions’ D-line this time.

No. 3: More options than usual are at Spencer Petras’ disposal. The emergence of true freshmen wide receivers Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV over the last two weeks have coincided with Iowa’s passing game looking the best it has (by a mile) all season. To beat a defense with athletes, it helps to counter with athletes. Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz’s multiple offense uses a variety of personnel groupings to find mismatches,

"The defense can’t pinpoint that the ball is going to a particular person on a given play," LaPorta said. “We have a lot of looks that I feel like look the same, but the ball can be sent out all over the field."

More:Inside Iowa football's challenge of appreciating the moment — and beating Penn State

No. 4: Familiarity with Penn State’s tactics. Players spoke this week about understanding what it takes to beat the Nittany Lions' blitz-heavy scheme under defensive coordinator Brent Pry.

“They know what we’re going to do. We know what they’re going to do,” Petras said. “And that’s fun. It’s kind of like, let the best man win. We’re fired up.”

Iowa’s running game found success at Penn State a year ago, with Mekhi Sargent rushing 15 times for 101 yards and Goodson running 20 times for 78. Iowa’s biggest mistake in 2019 was abandoning the run (Goodson had only eight carries). If Iowa can establish the run at around four yards per carry, it could be a long afternoon for Penn State.

No. 5: Iowa’s low turnover rate. Petras has only one giveaway in his last seven games as a starter.

“Turning the ball over is a really bad thing for a team,” Petras said.

The Hawkeyes are 106-24 under Ferentz when they win the turnover margin. Ball security on offense is especially helpful when you have a ball-hawking defense (national-best 16 turnovers created) and the reigning Big Ten punter of the year in Tory Taylor.

Bottom line: Iowa has enough in its offensive arsenal to deliver a top-five win.

“It’s going to come down to execution. How can we do on getting first downs? How can we do on executing third downs?” Linderbaum said. “When we get in the red zone, can we put up points? Can we score touchdowns? I think that's going to be the difference maker, especially on the offensive side of ball.

“Two great defenses going against each other, and we need to do our part.”

More:There's one crucial thing 2021 Iowa football has in common with 2015 Hawkeyes, Phil Parker says

Penn State wins if …

The Nittany Lions have the best offensive talent on the field in the senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson. He had eight catches for 139 yards against the Hawkeyes last season. Inconsistent quarterback Sean Clifford can find comfort with his trusted top receiver in a raucous road environment. Penn State’s veteran, physical secondary could tip the scales in this game by creating a couple forced fumbles. Penn State enjoyed a plus-two turnover edge in the 2019 win vs. Iowa but was minus-three in the 2020 loss.

Iowa wins if …

The defense needs to make Clifford uncomfortable. A few hard hits from Jack Campbell early might make the mobile quarterback second-guess his willingness to scramble. On offense, Iowa needs to score on every red-zone trip. Iowa has gotten help from an opportunistic offense to average 33.2 points per game despite an offense that ranks 117th in FBS (325 yards per game). Penn State, though, counters with the No. 2 red-zone defense in the country, having allowed no points on seven of opponents’ 15 trips inside the 20-yard line. Reliable kicker Caleb Shudak could be a significant factor Saturday.

More:FOX's Big Noon Kickoff will be in Iowa City for Iowa football vs. Penn State. Here's what we know.

No. 4 Penn State (5-0, 2-0 Big Ten) at No. 3 Iowa (5-0, 2-0)

Time, TV, Tipico Sportsbook line: 3:05 p.m. Saturday, Fox, Iowa by 1½ points.

Prediction: Iowa 27, Penn State 17. … Same score as Iowa's road win at Iowa State. The defense forces two interceptions, Petras throws for two touchdowns and the Hawkeyes end a string of three straight home losses vs. the Nittany Lions (2012, 2017, 2019). 

More:What channel is the Iowa-Penn State football game on? How to watch on TV, stream, listen

More:What color should Iowa football fans wear to ANF Black & Gold Spirit Game vs. Penn State?

Saturday’s other Big Ten games

(All times CT, lines from Tipico Sportsbook)

Maryland (4-1, 1-1) at No. 7 Ohio State (4-1, 2-0)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., Fox, Ohio State by 20½

Prediction: After throwing for 330 yards and five touchdowns in a rout at Rutgers, quarterback C.J. Stroud became the fifth straight Buckeye honored as Big Ten freshman of the week. That should tell you about Ohio State's upside as the season progresses. Losing receiver Dontay Demus Jr. for the season is a major blow for the Terrapins. Ohio State 49, Maryland 21

No. 11 Michigan State (5-0, 2-0) at Rutgers (3-2, 0-2)

Time, TV, line: 11 a.m., BTN, Michigan State by 5½

Prediction: Could the Spartans be on a collision course with Iowa for a 2015 Big Ten title-game rematch? That's probably still a stretch in the loaded East. Alarming stat: Michigan State gave up 560 yards in last week's win against Western Kentucky. The Spartans are on upset alert in Piscataway. Michigan State 27, Rutgers 24

Wisconsin (1-3, 0-2) at Illinois (2-4, 1-2)

Time, TV, line: 2:30 p.m., BTN, Wisconsin by 10½

Prediction: The Badgers' collapse to start this season is one of the most surprising stories in college football. But they have a stretch here — Illinois, Army and Purdue — got get back on track ahead of the Oct. 30 showdown vs. Iowa. Quarterback Graham Mertz (chest injury) was listed as questionable for this one. Wisconsin 24, Illinois 13

No. 8 Michigan (5-0, 2-0) at Nebraska (3-3, 1-2)

Time, TV, line: 6:30 p.m., ABC, Michigan by 3½

Prediction: The Cornhuskers outrushed Northwestern, 427-37, in Saturday's 56-7 rout. That's a great indicator that Scott Frost's team has turned a corner in the trenches. Nebraska looks to be hitting its stride and might be the second-best team in the Big Ten West. Michigan 27, Nebraska 21

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.