IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — When No. 3 Penn State views Iowa on film, it probably thinks it’s looking in the mirror.
Well, maybe a poorly lit one.
The Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes, who meet Saturday in Penn State’s final road game, share a similar roadmap to success: run the ball, play strong defense and control the clock.
Penn State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) is just doing it better than Iowa — or anyone else, for that matter.
The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in rushing offense and scoring defense, ranking fourth nationally at just 11.1 points allowed per game. The Hawkeyes (5-4, 2-3), losers of four games by a total of just 12 points, feature the nation’s third-leading rusher in Shonn Greene and they rank seventh in the country at 13.2 points allowed per game.
Throw in a forecast of a cold and windy conditions for Iowa City and it has all the makings of a classic Big Ten tussle — one where style points might be hard to come by.
“How the Iowa game is going to turn out, I don’t know,” Penn State coach Joe Paterno said. “But if you think I’m looking back and saying, ’Well, gee, holy smokes, we didn’t score 50 points,’ you’re nuts.”’
For Penn State, all the talk this week was about how No. 2 Texas Tech jumped them in the Bowl Championship Series rankings, setting up a possible scenario in which the unbeaten Nittany Lions get shut out of the national championship yet again.
But remember, Penn State has to keep winning before they can even worry about it. This week Paterno avoided the issue, choosing instead to focus on the task at hand.
“I haven’t got the slightest idea what the BCS — is it the BCS or the BSC? I don’t know,” Paterno said. “I’m telling you what I’m concerned about. I’m concerned about Iowa. Period.”
The Nittany Lions should benefit from the extra week of rest it got after the Ohio State game, a bruising affair that saw quarterback Daryll Clark get knocked out with a mild concussion. Clark practiced this week, and Paterno expects him to be ready for this weekend.
In the eyes of Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, Clark’s ascension from backup to Maxwell Award semifinalist has been the difference maker for Penn State.
Ferentz figured the Nittany Lions would be a handful this year if they got strong play from their quarterback. Clark has come through, leading Penn State to its best start since 1999, and that’s a big reason why Ferentz believes this Nittany Lions team is better than that ’99 edition, which won in Iowa City 31-7.
“I don’t know if we’ve faced a squad quite as good as this one. In fact, I’m pretty sure we haven’t,” Ferentz said. “This is a much stronger team.”
If Iowa has any hope of springing the upset, it must protect the football. That’s something the Hawkeyes and sophomore quarterback Ricky Stanzi are struggling with.
The Hawkeyes might feel a bit cursed, having dropped three Big Ten games by five points or less while winning two by an average of 29 points. But the reality is this: when they turn the ball over, they lose. When they don’t, they don’t.
Last week’s 27-24 loss at Illinois was a perfect example. Stanzi threw a pair of picks, and the Illini forced a fumble deep in Iowa territory and returned it for a crucial second-half touchdown.
Stanzi, who replaced junior Jake Christensen after four games, was turnover-free in wins over Indiana and Wisconsin.
“The challenge for us is for us to be at our absolute best in every area, every phase,” Ferentz said. “All that being said, we’ll still need to have some things, some breaks, whatever, happen.”
Even with a win, Penn State will have a tough time moving past No. 1 Alabama and second-ranked Texas Tech if those teams hold serve this weekend.
Alabama doesn’t have to worry about anything other than winning at LSU, a major challenge in and of itself, and the Red Raiders will likely see their reputation grow if it can beat Oklahoma State.
The Nittany Lions get an opponent that, while off the national radar, will be a tough out. The Hawkeyes share Penn State’s affection for field position, defense and the running game — remember, they played a 6-4 game in 2004 — and Iowa, despite four losses, has been in every game it has played.
“I just think that sometimes people don’t realize how good Iowa is,” Paterno said. “It’s going to be a tough football game for us.”