No. 3 Iowa vs. No. 4 Penn State. It’s the biggest game of the week, no matter what’s going on in Texas. On Saturday, everything’s bigger in Iowa City.

“It’s why you play the game,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said. “It’s two Top 5 teams — you can’t really ask for much more than that. I know the atmosphere is gonna be electric. I’m sure it’s a game we’ll remember for a while.”

And the adrenaline?

“Usually pretty high, especially during The Swarm,” Petras said.

But atmosphere can only take you so far, as Iowa found out in the past 2 games against Penn State in Kinnick — losses by 2 and 5 points after dark.

“One thing we told our players — just like last week — the fans don’t play the game,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “It’s up to us to make sure we get ready. We’re going to have to be our best at 3:05 Saturday for this game.” (All times Central.)

Iowa’s overcome every challenge so far, despite the doubters. The Hawkeyes have escalated to No. 3 by knocking off No. 17 Indiana, No. 9 Iowa State and an undefeated Maryland team on the road that was just outside the Top 25.

The tests just get tougher, but here’s how the Hawkeyes can pass it.

Stopping the run

“Explosive” is how Penn State coach James Franklin described Iowa’s Tyler Goodson. It also fits the running backs that came before him in this unofficial rivalry, like Saquon Barkley vs. Akrum Wadley in 2017.

Iowa’s Wadley had an impressive 155 yards and 2 touchdowns, but it was Barkley, with 211 rushing yards, 94 receiving yards and a touchdown, who made the difference for the Nittany Lions.

Two years later, Noah Cain ran for almost as many yards as Penn State threw for. He hasn’t run for 100 yards since. Cain will be back Saturday, but this Hawkeyes defense — allowing only 87 rushing yards per game — will be ready for him, John Lovett or anyone else tasked with toting the ball.

Then if Goodson gets loose, look out.


Iowa has emphasized that its turnover success is not luck. The Hawkeyes have amassed 16 turnovers because of their defensive scheme and “film study.”

They don’t care who gets the interception or fumble recovery, just as long as someone in black and gold does.

“Everyone’s always happy for everyone else’s success,” said defensive back Terry Roberts, who got his first pick Friday night.

“We understand where we need to be on each and every given play,” Iowa defensive back Kaevon Merriweather said. “That’s what allows us to be such a turnover-heavy defense.”

By sticking to their assignments, all they have to do is wait for the other team to fail theirs, which this year has happened more often than not. It has led to 75 points off turnovers for the Hawkeyes.

“We preach being in the right spot at all times,” Merriweather said. “Once quarterbacks make a mistake, we’re pretty much right there to make the play.”

And the way they’ll force those mistakes is …

Pressure the QB

It’s clear Sean Clifford is a focus for Iowa. Ferentz led his news conference’s Penn State portion with him, and several players mentioned him Tuesday.

“He can make any throw that they ask him to make. As dangerous as anything, if it’s not there for him, something opens up, he’ll pull it down and go,” Ferentz said. “He’ll throw off the run or take it and make the yardage necessary.”

And he’s been here before, against an Iowa defense that was giving up even fewer points at the time than this year’s, believe it or not.

“He’s an experienced guy,” defensive lineman John Waggoner said. “He’s won inside Kinnick Stadium before. We’ve got a lot of respect for him.”

Clifford only threw for 117 yards that night in 2019, but ran for 52 more. The solution?

“Just keep forcing turnovers each game, because that’s a big advantage for us,” Waggoner said. “We definitely emphasized that in the preseason — trying to get takeaways. It’s paying off, and we want to continue to make that happen.”

Easier said than done against Penn State, and the Hawkeyes know that.

“A quarterback like him, he’s gonna be calm in the pocket,” Merriweather said. “He’s not probably gonna let the environment get to him as much as other quarterbacks might, especially with as loud of a stadium as Kinnick. He’s not gonna get rattled as much. So I think we’re gonna be in for a good game.”

Still, the defensive front will do its best to create opportunities for the backs to get the interceptions that Iowa is becoming known for.

“They make a lot of plays, and we want to help them out as much as we can as a d-line by putting pressure on the quarterback and making his life uncomfortable,” Waggoner said. “We want to continue that trend.”

If they do, the game’s difficulty level gets turned way down.


“A lot of it’s going to come down to execution on Saturday,” Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said.

He’s right, and the Hawkeyes specialize in it, especially this season. To win this game, they’ll need to be perfect if Penn State is, because the margins are that slim.

I saw a projected score of 14.45 to 14. I love that. Now, Penn State-Iowa scores get weird — insert your own 6-4 memory here; I was at a “frog bar” in Chicago — but the Nittany Lions are not scoring 14.45 points. That’s a prediction I can guarantee. Just (generously) round up and — voila — 15-14. It’s like someone who rates movies or food on a 10-point scale but hands out a 9.95 score — that’s a 1,000-point scale you have there, not 10.

Speaking of advanced stats, Iowa is second in “stop rate” at 85.7% behind Georgia. Penn State is 10th with 81.2%. Their points allowed per drive are 0.83 vs. 0.94, respectively.

Let’s lean on the methodical side and say both teams have 12 possessions. If their percentages hold, it’s an 11-10 Iowa win (see, I rounded). But shift just one possession to the other side either way, and it shifts a full point, to either 12-9 Iowa — or an 11-10 Penn State win.

A final score of 11-10 in this game? No one says no to that. It fits right in with the last Top 5 matchup at Kinnick, a 12-10 win for No. 1 Iowa over No. 2 Michigan, and it lines up nicely with each team’s average points allowed (12, rounding again) this year.

Advantage: Iowa, ever so slightly.


“Iowa is consistent, not simple. Who they are this year is who they were last year and who they were before that.”

Just listening to Penn State coach James Franklin read off the Iowa data he had in front of him at his weekly news conference, I got the sense he feels he could use the same script every year. Just swap out some names.

It was accurate — and respectful — with a hint of disbelief.

Maybe some are things Hawkeyes fans take for granted. Iowa doesn’t rebuild, they reload, but not in the way most use that phrase. It’s with more 2- and 3-stars than 4s and 5s, but they always seem to “have a guy” that opposing coaches just shake their heads at and wonder, “Where’d he come from?”

Among the highlights from his long list in the first 8 minutes of his presser:
“Play-action, play-action, play-action.”
“They always seem to have a tight end who’s a challenge to deal with”
“They’ve always got a guy like that”

Ferentz’ take on Penn State isn’t much different.

“I’ve been following Penn State since I was basically in elementary school, growing up in that part of the country,” Ferentz said. “The story doesn’t change a heck of a lot. A lot of things that were true when I was young are still true right now. They have outstanding players. They’ve always had good players there. I can’t remember a year where they didn’t. Very well-coached. Coach Franklin really has them playing well right now, at a high rate.”

At one point, Ferentz seemed to have the Nittany Lions’ number, winning his first Big Ten road game at State College way back in 2000 and building up an 8-2 record against them. But a 6-game losing streak the Hawkeyes ended last year has closed the gap to 9-8.

If Ferentz can find that formula again, and Iowa can wear down Penn State like Franklin reading the accolades and accomplishments of his opponent in game week, it might even lead a man to leak his own USC coaching rumor in the hopes of never dealing with the Hawkeyes again.

Which Franklin would of course not address.

Enjoy it while you can, Big Ten fans. It only barely gets better than this — and No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t walking through that door — or tunnel — to play just yet.