Big Ten conference play officially opens this weekend, and No. 4 Penn State is on the road to go where championship dreams have died on multiple occasions. A night game in Kinnick Stadium has doomed Penn State once before, and Iowa is feeling good heading into the Big Ten opener on the strength of an undefeated record. Can Iowa pull off an upset against the defending Big Ten champs?
Penn State has looked solid in its first three games, but stepping away from Beaver Stadium for the first time this season presents a new challenge for the Nittany Lions. A dynamic offense will be tested by Iowa’s frenzied crowd and a stingy effort from the home team’s defense. But if Penn State can answer this challenge, things could be going right along according to plan to defend the conference crown later on.
Penn State at Iowa
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Penn State -13
Three Things to Watch
1. Saquon Barkley vs. Akrum Wadley
The Big Ten looks to be pretty deep when it comes to running backs, and this particular Big Ten opener features two of the best. Barkley is widely considered a strong Heisman Trophy contender who comes into the opener with 655 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns and has proven to be a versatile weapon both running and catching in the Penn State offense. Wadley (above, right) also has proven to be a versatile asset with 510 all-purpose yards and two touchdowns, and one controversial touchdown pulled off the board last week.
2. Is Penn State’s defense this good or has it not been tested?
The stats are incredibly good for Penn State’s defense in the early stages of the season, but nobody is confusing them for the defenses owned by Clemson or Michigan. Despite a pair of shutouts against Akron and Georgia State and allowing just one touchdown against Pittsburgh, Penn State’s defense has not exactly been put to the test this season. Going on the road to Kinnick Stadium will be the toughest test yet for Penn State. If the Nittany Lions shut down Wadley and hold Iowa down on the scoreboard, this defense will gain some legitimacy moving forward.
3. Remember, remember, Iowa usually pulls home upsets in November
It has been nearly a decade since Penn State saw a run to a possible national championship come to an end in Iowa City. In 2008, Iowa shocked No. 2 Penn State and knocked the Nittany Lions out of the driver’s seat to a spot in the BCS Championship Game. Last November, Iowa also essentially derailed Michigan’s run to the College Football Playoff. In 2010, Iowa handed No. 5 Michigan State a loss on Oct. 30. Night games in Kinnick Stadium are tricky for national title contenders, but the Hawkeyes' biggest upsets have tended to come later in the season, in or just before November. Can they pull off a similar upset at home in September? Penn State fans know how dangerous Iowa can be. Not only did Iowa throw a curve ball their way in 2008, but the Hawkeyes also upset the No. 5 Nittany Lions at the end of September in 2009.
Iowa has the tools to move the chains and grind out drives against Penn State’s defense, but the key for the Hawkeyes will be to provide some offensive help for Wadley and to slow down a Penn State offense with Trace McSorley, Mike Gesicki and a wide receiver unit that is dangerous at any given moment. Iowa quarterback Nate Stanley has been safe and efficient with his passing (10 TDs, 1 INT, 61.4 completion percentage), and he will have to continue playing that kind of game to keep Iowa close. But the Iowa defense has its work cut out for it, and preventing big plays may prove difficult.
Prediction: Penn State 34, Iowa 23
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.