Final thoughts (and a prediction) for Penn State-Iowa
Let’s start with the thing we know Penn State and Iowa fans can all agree on.
Yes, it is patently ridiculous that ESPN isn’t broadcasting College GameDay from Iowa City on Saturday morning. This is the biggest Big Ten game in decades when “the Big 2” of Ohio State and Michigan are removed from the picture. The last time there was a Top 5 Big Ten matchup involving neither of those schools was November 1962.
How long ago is that?
The Four Seasons were atop the Billboard Top 100. Gas was 31 cents a gallon. Oregon State quarterback Terry Baker was the most explosive player in college football, leading the nation with a whopping 195 passing yards per game … which would put him at 67th in 2021.
So it goes without saying that this is a game to pay attention to.
But like a wide receiver refusing to go for a catch over the middle, this is a business decision for the ESPN family of networks.
The Penn State-Iowa game is on FOX. Oklahoma-Texas is airing on ABC, which is an ESPN production. And yes, that is the same dynamic as when ESPN chose to do GameDay from Chicago prior to the Notre Dame-Wisconsin game. But as any Big Ten fan already knows, people are always making exceptions for Notre Dame.
Simply put, ESPN is unlikely to hype a game airing on a rival network twice in the same month. On top of that, there’s not much incentive to do a second Penn State game in a month.
And you know what? Who cares?
Life is less fun without Lee Corso’s antics, but what happens on the field is far more important than an elbow-to-elbow social gathering on the quad. The winner of this game is in the driver’s seat for a CFP berth. It’ll be a lot tougher for GameDay to say no to whoever just keeps on winning.
Now, on to the game itself, which feels very much like it will be decided by a tiny handful of crucial plays:
The team that makes the fewest mistakes is winning this game.
That’s not always how it works, but both of these teams are built on the same basic identity: the other guy is going to blink first.
Iowa: 12 interceptions gained + 4 fumbles recovered – 1 interception – 3 fumbles lost = +12 turnover margin
Penn State: 7 interceptions gained + 2 fumbles gained – 3 interceptions – 0 fumbles lost = +6 turnover margin
These are the top 2 teams in the B1G as measured in turnover margin. No one has turned it over fewer times than the Nittany Lions, while Iowa’s defense has more than made up for the Hawkeyes’ offense having 1 additional gaffe than Penn State.
Iowa is remarkable at making the most of its turnovers, converting them into 75 points. It helps when you bypass the middle man and score touchdowns yourself, which the Iowa defense has already done thrice.
If the Nittany Lions can avoid being like every other team that’s played Iowa — and they certainly adhere to the right recipe — they’ll win. Easier said than done.
Red zone will be crucial
Between the 20s, Iowa’s defense holds the clear edge. The Hawks are better than the Lions in just about every statistical measure, but most of them are very close. When you look at defensive leaders in the Big Ten, Iowa tends to be the only team better than Penn State in a given category.
Red zone defense is one of the few exceptions.
Penn State is the nation’s second-best red zone defense, trailing only Cincinnati. The Nittany Lions have allowed points on 8 of 15 (53.3%) opposing trips into the red zone. Penn State is 7th in touchdown percentage (33.3%) with 5 touchdowns allowed.
Opponents rarely venture into the red zone against Iowa, with 10 total trips inside the 20. But they have found success once reaching the promised land. Opponents have scored on 9 of 10 trips into the red zone against the Hawkeyes, with 6 resulting in touchdowns.
That red zone touchdown percentage puts Iowa at a modest 68th nationally.
Kickers will be key
Along those red-zone lines, it will not be the least bit surprising if this game is decided by the kickers — Penn State’s Jordan Stout or Iowa’s Caleb Shudak.
Penn State has touchdowns on 10 of 16 (62.5%) of trips into the opposing red zone, which is 70th overall. Iowa has the same number of touchdowns in 19 red-zone trips (52.6%), which is tied for 98th. When you factor both of these defenses on top of that, you get the feeling both teams will be settling for 3 on more than one occasion.
Stout is more erratic than Shudak, missing 3 of his 9 attempts as well as 1 of 19 PATs. Stout’s career accuracy isn’t great — he’s 10 of 17 (58.8%) — but that’s because he was a long-distance specialist before this season. He’s boomed in 3 from more than 50 yards, including a career-long of 57.
Shudak’s only missed kick this season was from 50 yards out, though he’s also made a 51-yarder.
A prediction: Penn State 13, Iowa 12
This is a difficult game to predict because these teams match up so well. A single play among a hundred is capable of swinging the outcome.
But you didn’t come here for final thoughts and a hedge, so I’m forced to make a prediction.
To me, this feels like the most likely result — Iowa ends up with more scoring opportunities than Penn State, but the Nittany Lions end up making more out of those situations.
And that’s the interesting thing about this game. My prognostication is that Iowa will get about 4 chances to score, but settle for a field goal each time. But if the Hawkeyes get 2 or 3 touchdowns (or more!) out of those situations, they could win pretty comfortably. Neither outcome would surprise me. And I do think an Iowa win of 10 points or more is more likely than a Penn State win of 10 points or more.
However, Penn State squeaking this out seems like the most likely space this Wheel of Fortune will land on.
To me, one stat stands out to make the potential difference.
Penn State and Iowa have a mutual opponent: Indiana. Both embarrassed the visiting Hoosiers, with Iowa winning 34-6 and Penn State shutting them out 24-0. Most of the stats from those games look the same.
But one thing Penn State did better against Indiana than Iowa was run the ball. The Nittany Lions averaged 5 yards per carry compared to 4.4 for the Hawkeyes. Penn State running back Noah Cain had one of his better career performances the last time he faced Iowa in 2019, finishing with 102 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries as a freshman.
Neither rushing offense is great — Penn State averages 3.8 yards per carry to Iowa’s 3.2 — but in a game like this, any little edge could be the difference.