When Iowa traveled to University Park, Md. last week, some dubbed the game between Iowa and Maryland a contest of the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Terps quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa was beginning to look like older brother Tua, and some were giving the undefeated Terps a chance to steal a home upset against the Hawkeyes.
Then the swarming Iowa defense struck, limiting Tagovailoa to a season-low 157 yards on 55.2% completion and a season-high five interceptions. In the previous four games, he’d thrown for 1,340 yards (75.5%) and 10 touchdowns to one interception.
It was a drubbing by the Iowa defense, wiping the floor with a quarterback who was gaining darkhorse Heisman hype. Instead, Iowa jumped into the No. 3 spot in the country, Maryland got ran off the field and Tagovailoa was sent down a few pegs.
Now Penn State will travel to Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City for the biggest game of the season thus far, a 3 vs. 4 match-up at 4 p.m. on Fox. We know who’s calling the game, we know the betting lines and we know that Fox’s Big Noon Kickoff will be in attendance Saturday morning.
We don’t know if Penn State senior quarterback Sean Clifford will be able to stand up to the Iowa defense yet though.
Spencer Petras isn’t going to win the game, but he won’t lose it either
Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras played in eight games for the Hawkeyes last season, including Iowa’s 41-21 win over the Nittany Lions last season, to mild success. He threw for 186 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions, but he did rush for a score in the game, and season totals were nothing to write home about.
In 2021, Petras has completed 62% of his passing attempts for 943 yards with seven touchdowns. His 6.9 yards per attempt isn’t the sign of a quarterback who will push the ball down the field, but he’s played efficient, turnover-free football this season.
Despite Iowa’s incredible defense, the Hawkeyes will likely go as far as Petras can take them. of course, Iowa’s defense will win some games, but the Hawkeyes will need Petras to make some plays to beat good teams. Perhaps that starts with Penn State this week.
The Iowa offense hasn’t necessarily been threatening this season, but it hasn’t had to be. Petras and running back Tyler Goodson have formed an efficient duo that doesn’t turn the ball over. However, season totals aren’t pretty.
While scoring 33.2 points per game (good for fourth in the Big 10), the Hawkeyes only average 320 yards per game — which is the worst in the conference. Iowa’s rushing attack averages only 126 yards per game (12th-best in the conference) and the passing attack averages 194 yards per game (10th-best in the conference).
Iowa hasn’t really pounded the ball this season, with just 187 attempts, but a 3.4 average carry isn’t likely to be any better against a Lions’ defense that allows just 110.4 yards per game and 3.2 yards per carry.
Iowa’s 147 passing attempts this season rank toward the bottom of the conference, and the Hawkeyes’ 59.9% completion, 970 yards and 6.6 yards per attempt rank toward the tail end, too. However, with just one interception, Petras is careful with the ball.
With an 84.2% red zone scoring percentage, Iowa has converted on 16-of-19 chances this season, including 10 touchdowns. Additionally, the Hawkeyes have connected on 6-of-6 field goals in the red zone.
The Lions’ defense this season has been stout, holding opponents to just 12 points per game. If pressure can be applied upon Petras, it should give the PSU offense more breathing room.
Sean Clifford is in for a major test against the Iowa secondary
Clifford has had a solid, efficient season for the Lions, throwing 1,336 yards and 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions. He’s pushing the ball down the field, good for 8.7 yards per attempt, and he’s still largely taking care of the ball.
He’s in for a tough, tough test against perhaps the best secondary in the nation this week.
The Hawkeyes secondary has picked off 12 passes this season — good for the most in the nation. And it hasn’t been just one player either, as much as defensive back Riley Moss has led the way with three interceptions and two pick-sixes.
Eight players have picked off passes for Iowa this season, with three players picking off multiple balls in Moss and defensive backs Dane Belton and Matt Hankins.
In addition to forcing Clifford into more conservative play, senior wide receiver Jahan Dotson and sophomore wide receiver Parker Washington will have a much tougher time in creating openings for Clifford. It should be a good test for the Lions’ elite wide receiving duo.
The Iowa defense is second in the nation in points allowed this season, holding opposing teams to just 11.6 points per game. The Hawkeyes have only allowed 271.4 yards per game (7th-best in the nation) while holding opposing teams to just 4.11 yards per play. The defense has even helped the Iowa offense this season, scoring three defensive touchdowns, which is only behind Ohio State.
Through the air, Iowa is holding opposing teams to just 184.4 yards per game (54.8% completion) and just five passing touchdowns. Opposing quarterbacks to just a 97.0 efficiency rating.
In allowing just 87 rushing yards per game, the Hawkeyes run defense is just as stifling. Opposing teams have averaged just 2.7 yards per carry and scored two touchdowns against the Hawkeyes. This, of course, doesn’t bode well for junior running back Noah Cain finally having a breakout game.
A defensive slugfest will need Clifford to make a play or two
With two strong defenses going at it on Saturday, a 13-10 game doesn’t seem too unlikely at this point. It likely won’t be a banner day for Clifford and the offense against the Hawkeyes, but if he’s able to play a clean, efficient game, the Lions will have a chance. Especially if Dotson and Washington can get the ball in some space and create for the Lions.
If Clifford gets into a funk and lets the Hawkeyes’ defense get in a rhythm, it could be a long night for the offense. However, the Lions’ defense is well-equipped to deal with Petras and the Iowa offense, too. A strong performance from the excellent Lions’ secondary will be needed.
A low-scoring, grind-it-out kind of game in the 80-degree Iowa heat Saturday seems likely, and it could come down to which quarterback makes the fewest mistakes.