Two years ago, Penn State needed a last-second touchdown pass from Trace McSorley to escape Kinnick Stadium with a hard-fought win against Iowa. Will we be getting another nailbiter that goes down to the wire Saturday night?
Penn State has cracked the top 10 of the national polls but faces its first true test of the season with a road trip to Iowa. Iowa will be looking to bounce back from a difficult loss in a defensive slugfest against Michigan last week. This could be a very dangerous setting for Penn State, but the big question is whether or not the Hawkeyes can find their offense in a big spot to stay in the thick of the Big Ten West Division race moving forward.
Penn State at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 12 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Penn State -3.0
When Penn State Has the Ball
For as much attention as Penn State's running game has been receiving lately, the Nittany Lions bring the Big Ten's leading passing offense to Iowa City this weekend. Led by Sean Clifford at quarterback, Penn State is averaging 305.6 passing yards per game with 13 touchdowns passes to just two interceptions (only Ohio State's 27 touchdowns and one interception are better in the Big Ten). Clifford leads the Big Ten with an average of 288.6 passing yards per game, averaging 10.7 yards per attempt. However, this week will bring the toughest pass defense Clifford has faced to date. Iowa has allowed just four touchdown passes this season, and they have intercepted four passes. Iowa has allowed the fourth-fewest passing yards per game. It is also reasonable to suggest that Clifford has not been put in a scenario with some real adversity yet, and this setting should see what he is capable of doing under immense pressure. A.J. Epenesa will look to bring constant pressure on the young starting quarterback, and Penn State's offensive line will have a tough task on its hands.
Iowa also handles running games pretty well, too, so Penn State's running back by committee will have to be patient. The Hawkeyes have allowed just one rushing touchdown this season. Penn State's offense has scored 17 rushing touchdowns, including a few by their quarterbacks. Young backs Noah Cain and Journey Brown have had some solid performances early on this season, but this may be a game where Penn State needs one of its backs to declare himself as the guy who can be trusted to pick up some hard yardage.
When Iowa Has the Ball
Iowa's offense is looking to get things going this season. In their last two games against power conference opponents, the Hawkeyes have scored 18 points (against Iowa State) and three points (against Michigan), respectively. With Penn State's defense beginning to receive some national acclaim, Iowa's offense will not have an easy time getting its rhythm unless the Hawkeyes can feed off some early energy from the home crowd under the lights.
Nate Stanley is coming off one of his worst performances in an Iowa uniform with three interceptions against the Wolverines last week, so he will need to get some confidence early on against the Nittany Lions. There will be even more redemption on the line for Stanley because last season's performance against Penn State was one of his worst games of the 2018 season. Stanley completed 18-of-41 pass attempts for 205 yards with two interceptions and no touchdowns in a 30-24 loss.
Iowa could also benefit from getting its running game going. The Hawkeyes are ranked sixth in the Big Ten in rushing offense with just seven rushing touchdowns on the year coming into this weekend. The combo of Mekhi Sargent and Toren Young has potential, but Penn State is second in the Big Ten against the run, allowing just 50.6 yards per game.
Don't count on a ton of points in this game, so the question is: Which offense do you trust more? The home team with a struggling offense that will be playing in front of its home fans under the lights in a stadium where nothing is ever easy for a top-10 team? Or the visiting team with young playmakers looking for a statement of their own? In this case, Penn State may have the offensive playmakers they need to pull one out just as they did two years ago. This may not be a last-second victory, but a late score in the fourth quarter could very well be the deciding factor.
Prediction: Penn State 23, Iowa 16
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Patreon, on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.