IOWA CITY, Iowa (CBS) – Six weeks into the college football season, everything has gone right so far for James Franklin and the No. 10 Penn State Nittany Lions. The team is 5-0, averaging 47 points per game on offense and allowing just 7.4 on defense.
But, starting this week, the schedule kicks into high gear. The Nittany Lions travel to Kinnick Stadium, a regular house of horrors for Big Ten opponents, to take on the No. 17 Iowa Hawkeyes. While Penn State has feasted so far on teams that they should beat up on, this week presents a challenge.
Iowa’s defense ranks ninth in the country in defensive SP+, a measure of a team’s efficiency that is adjusted for both tempo and opponent. The Hawkeyes have allowed just 8.4 points per game to their opponents, holding them to 255 total yards per game. The Hawkeyes have held opponents to just 25 percent on third-down conversions, which has been a difficulty for offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne’s group so far.
That presents the toughest task that Franklin’s offense has had to face to this point. The group is young, with freshmen and sophomores playing key roles at many of the skill positions. But, they have seemingly improved each week. Still, against their first true test, how will those youngsters perform is the biggest question on people’s minds.
“I’m looking for Clifford to not have a huge drop-off, because, so far, they aren’t missing anything at quarterback. They lost a star (Trace McSorely), Stevens transfers and Clifford has been really really good so far,” said CBS Sports Network college football host Brent Stover.
Clifford has steadily progressed each week, but Kinnick Stadium presents a different challenge for opponents. Iowa regularly plays Big Ten foes tough at home, and Franklin knows just how difficult wins can come there. The last time Penn State visited, it took a last-second touchdown pass from McSorely to seal the victory for the then fourth-ranked Nittany Lions. That was despite a game in which then junior Saquon Barkley totaled 305 yards (211 on the ground) and a touchdown.
The history between the two sides is part of the reason that the Nittany Lions are just a three-point favorite on the road, with oddsmakers expecting the teams to combine for somewhere around 41-42 points. Stover disagrees.
“Normally I would say Big Ten football, grind it out, but I think Penn State is going to score 35 against Iowa,” said Stover. “That may sound crazy, but I just don’t see anything from Iowa offensively.”
The Hawkeyes offense hasn’t exactly inspired confidence this season, averaging just 27 points on the season, ranking 81st in the country. They mustered just three points in their last outing against the Michigan Wolverines last week, and quarterback Nathan Stanley looked out of sorts in that game. But, last week’s performance isn’t the only reason that Stover is concerned.
“They have scored one combined offensive touchdown in their games against their two best opponents, in Michigan and Iowa State. Stanley was under siege the entire game against a Michigan defense that we liked a lot coming into the season but has given up a lot of yardage in the Army and Wisconsin games,” said Stover. “I’m not sold on Iowa. I think it is smoke and mirrors that they have gotten off to the start that they have.”
Combine the Iowa offensive struggles with a Penn State defense that Stover says is “probably top-five” in the country, and you have a recipe for a good outlook for the Nittany Lions. Brent Pry’s group has dominated opponents thus far, with stars like defensive end Yetur Gross Matos , linebackers Micah Parsons and Cam Brown and corner Tariq Castro-Fields making big impacts. The unit has held opponents to just a 25% conversion rate on third downs and has allowed opponents just nine trips into the red zone so far this season. On those nine trips, the Lions have allowed only four touchdowns.
For Stover, with the way that the defense is playing and the offense’s continued progress, James Franklin’s group is creeping towards the team considered to be the best in the Big Ten right now.
“I still put a pretty big gap between Ohio State and everybody else. But, instead of everybody else, it’s now Ohio State, a decent-sized gap to Penn State and then another gap to everybody else,” said Stover. “That includes Wisconsin. I think Penn State, right now, there is still a sizable gap between them and Wisconsin.”
A date with the Buckeyes awaits on Nov. 23, but first Franklin and company will have to get through this weekend’s game against the Hawkeyes unscathed. Kickoff between No. 10 Penn State and No. 17 Iowa is set for 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday.