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IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Penn State was supposed to be too depleted by player defections to be a factor in a Big Ten title race it is not eligible to win. Iowa simply wasn’t supposed to be good enough in 2012, even though the Legends Division appeared to be wide open.
Well, surprise: The Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes meet Saturday night in Iowa City playing much better than many thought they were capable of, each with wins in their first two conference games.
Penn State (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) has rallied from the most turbulent offseason in the history of the sport and an 0-2 start to post four straight wins. Iowa (4-2, 2-0) has overcome a terrible passing game and a pair of home losses by displaying the mental toughness that’s become familiar under longtime coach Kirk Ferentz.
In a league filled with disappointing seasons, Penn State and Iowa both have hopes of a standout conference season.
“Penn State has had great players and they have still got great players and they have had great success and they are having great success now. So that part doesn’t shock me,” Ferentz said. “I was hoping we would be undefeated totally, but we are not. I’m an optimist every year.”
If Ferentz sounds loose, it may be because he has had some of his greatest moments at Iowa against the Nittany Lions. Ferentz is 8-3 against Penn State, and the Hawkeyes ruined Penn State’s national title hopes in 2008 and ’09.
But Penn State has begun to assume a new identity in the past month under first-year coach Bill O’Brien.
The Nittany Lions lost to Ohio and Virginia to open the season and the thinking was that the team was going to struggle all year after transfers following the NCAA’s sanctions in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky child sex-abuse scandal.
Then came wins against Navy, Temple and Illinois, and a stirring rally to beat Northwestern 39-28.
“What’s impressed me about this team and this coaching staff through six games and training camp and spring practice … is the poise, is the ability to focus, is the ability to understand the task at hand and don’t worry about all the things that you can’t control,” O’Brien said.
For the Hawkeyes, the biggest question is whether running back Mark Weisman will play. Weisman, who was virtually unknown a month ago, has emerged as Iowa’s main source of offense with 631 yards rushing and eight touchdowns in essentially just four games.
Weisman sprained his ankle in last week’s 19-16 double-overtime win at Michigan State. He will suit up, but it’s uncertain how effective he can be against Penn State, the Big Ten’s second-best defense in points allowed.
True freshman Greg Garmon, who grew up in Erie, Pa., will likely start for Iowa. The Hawkeyes will need a big night out of him considering they’ve only thrown two touchdown passes all season.
“We are not going to give up on the run but we are going to have to try to compensate a little bit and spread it around and do what we can. But it’s not going to be easy. These guys get after you good up front,” Ferentz said.
Iowa has been nearly as strong on defense as Penn State, except for a meltdown in the 45 final seconds of a loss to Central Michigan. Iowa is third in the Big Ten at 17.2 points allowed per game.
Still, the Hawkeyes have yet to face a quarterback playing as well as Matt McGloin, who has thrown 12 TD passes and just two interceptions.
“We’re definitely going to push the pace. We’re going to be aggressive in this game. We just have to keep on our toes all game,” tight end Kyle Carter said.
This will be the third time in four years that Iowa and Penn State have met under the lights. The Hawkeyes won both by a combined score of 45-13.
Iowa hasn’t shown it can dominate anybody like that this season, and will be counting on its fans to make it a long evening for Penn State.
“It’s going to be an electric atmosphere. The crowd noise is definitely going to be a factor, so we’ve got to make sure that we deal with that in the right way,” O’Brien said. “It’s a very tough environment, and they’re playing well right now. It’s a very tough football team. It’s not going to be easy.”