Iowa has prime opportunity to get revenge against a shockingly vulnerable Penn State team
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Kirk Ferentz isn’t alone in his bewilderment over Penn State’s 0-4 start to the football season.
It's one of the shocking storylines of an abnormal college football season.
Ferentz, a Pennsylvania native, has observed the Nittany Lions for decades. He’s seen them stockpile talent and steamroll opponents.
But only once before has Penn State lost its first four games in a season. That was in 2001, when Ferentz’s third Iowa team prevailed 24-18 to help put the Nittany Lions in that hole.
“When you look at Penn State, they are a very impressive team, pretty much talented at every position, and that really comes as no surprise,” Ferentz offered at his Tuesday news conference, trying to build up the Hawkeyes’ opponent in a 2:30 p.m. Saturday game at Beaver Stadium on the Big Ten Network. “And their backups look very much the same. They play a lot of people and have done that traditionally, so they are a good football team. Certainly a team that's better than their record right now.”
But are they really? Penn State is the fourth team to start a season 0-4 after being ranked in the top 10 of the Associated Press preseason poll. The last was Pitt in 1984.
The Nittany Lions are allowing 35 points a game, with an offense that is producing plenty of yards but little else. Penn State is minus-6 in turnover margin. It gained 501 yards last Saturday and still found ways to lose 30-23 at Nebraska to become the last remaining winless team in the Big Ten Conference. The Nittany Lions changed quarterbacks at halftime of that one, but still managed only one touchdown in six trips into the red zone.
It is baffling even to Penn State coach James Franklin, in his seventh year there.
“There’s a lot of factors,” he told reporters this week. “Coaching is one of them.”
Iowa (2-2) has lost its last six meetings with Penn State. The Hawkeyes have fallen while allowing only 13 points, and they’ve gotten pasted while surrendering 41. They’ve lost on the final play and been essentially out of games by halftime.
But never have they faced a Penn State team in such disarray.
The Nittany Lions dropped their opener at Indiana in overtime, another game in which they handily won the statistical battle, and have never seemed to recover. They are struggling to overcome the loss of star linebacker Micah Parsons, who opted out of the season. To compound things, starting running back Journey Brown retired due to a heart condition, and backup Noah Cain went down with a leg injury.
Franklin said that has thrust role players into positions of prominence, with predictable results.
“Some guys are erasers. Micah’s an eraser. He can erase problems and issues by making plays,” Franklin said. “It’s an amount of production that you have to replace.”
And now he’s had to replace starting quarterback Sean Clifford, who led the Nittany Lions to an 11-2 record a year ago, including a 17-12 win in Iowa City. Clifford was intercepted and lost a fumble in the first half at Nebraska, leading to 10 Cornhusker points and a 27-6 deficit.
Will Levis relieved Clifford and led a late rally. Franklin hasn’t said who will start against Iowa, indicating this week that both will likely play.
Ferentz is assuming that Clifford will start the game, but said his defense is preparing for both quarterbacks and said both are capable of beating the Hawkeyes.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker seemed incredulous that the Nittany Lions would start someone other than Clifford, given what he did a season ago.
“We're going to have to play clean football. We're going to have to be able to communicate and anticipate things before they happen,” Parker said of the key to beating Penn State. “That's the only way you're going to beat these guys is understanding what you have to do and recognizing things before the play happens.”
Iowa was trying hard to sell Penn State as a dangerous opponent. But the season so far has revealed otherwise.
“If you look at them statistically, they are a very impressive football team,” Ferentz said one last time, careful not to shortchange Penn State in the least. “But for whatever reason, they have come up short.”
Actually, the reasons are pretty obvious. This is a vulnerable Penn State team, with nothing to play for halfway through a lost season.
And that makes this a prime chance at revenge for the Hawkeyes, who won’t even have to contend with the crowds of 100,000-plus that typically fill Beaver Stadium. It’s a combination of factors working in Iowa’s favor, and a situation the Hawkeyes may never see again against Penn State.
IOWA (2-2) at PENN STATE (0-4)
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Beaver Stadium, University Park, Pa.
TV: BTN (Joe Beninati, Matt Millen, Rick Pizzo)
Line: Hawkeyes by 2.5
Weather: 53 degrees and mostly cloudy; wind from the northwest at 7 mph
Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.