By: C.J. Doon
After a disastrous 0-2 start to the season, including a heartbreaking 17-16 loss to Virginia that saw kicker Sam Ficken miss four field goals, Penn State looked like a team on the verge of collapse.
All Penn State has done since then is reel off four straight wins, and looking to claim its first ever Big Ten Leaders Division title.
Not bad for a team that was supposed to finish with less than six wins, wouldn’t you say?
Penn State’s recent success is due in large part to new head coach Bill O’Brien, who has completely changed the entire philosophy of Penn State football. The Nittany Lions were notorious for playing conservatively on offense under the late head coach Joe Paterno, but with Bill O’Brien at the helm, the Lions’ offense has turned into a group of riverboat gamblers. Penn State has converted 13-of-20 fourth down attempts this season, including 5-of-6 in a come-from-behind victory over #24 Northwestern.
Senior quarterback Matt McGloin has flourished under Penn State’s new offensive system, a system O’Brien used successfully with NFL quarterback Tom Brady when O’Brien was the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots. McGloin has thrown for over 1400 yards and 12 touchdowns this season, and leads the Big Ten in passing yards/game for the first time in his career. Sophomore receiver Allen Robinson has stepped into the spotlight to fill the role left by former Nittany Lion Justin Brown, who transferred to Oklahoma in the wake of the NCAA sanctions. Robinson leads the Big Ten in touchdown receptions (7) and receptions/game (6.8), and has become McGloin’s favorite target through the first six games of the season.
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Michael Mauti has emerged as the MVP of this young team, as well as the new face of Penn State football. The senior from Mandeville, Louisiana earned mid-season All-America honors, and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week for his two interceptions in Penn State’s dismantling of Illinois, 35-7. Gerald Hodges, Mauti’s teammate and fellow member of “Linebacker U”, was also named a mid-season All-American, and played a pivotal role in Penn State’s upset of #24 Northwestern. The senior recorded 11 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and forced a key fumble at the end of the fourth quarter that sealed the victory for the Nittany Lions.
Coming off their bye week, Penn State heads to Iowa City to take on the Hawkeyes, who beat a tough Michigan State team on the road in double overtime last week. Iowa (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) is currently sitting atop the Legends Division, so a win on Saturday would be a big step towards a trip to Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game in December. Here are the storylines heading into Saturday’s contest:
Can Iowa’s defense contain Penn State’s potent offensive attack?
Iowa’s defense has been stingy this season, allowing only 17.2 points/game and limiting the opponents’ rushing attack to a measly 3.4 yards/rush. But Penn State’s offense has been even more impressive, scoring 27 points/game, including three games in which they’ve scored 34 points or more. The key to the Lions’ success on offense is quarterback Matt McGloin. The Scranton native has been very careful with the football this season, throwing only two interceptions through six games vs. 12 touchdowns. Iowa’s defense has picked off opposing quarterbacks seven times this season, and ball-hawking defensive backs Greg Castillo and Tom Donatell each have two interceptions as part of a dangerous Iowa secondary.
Ball security will be a key to success in this game, as costly turnovers often prove to be the difference between winning and losing in Big Ten play.
Will Zach Zwinak continue to put up impressive numbers as Penn State’s starting running back?
Zach Zwinak has been one of the biggest surprises on this Penn State squad, emerging as the Lions’ most effective running back halfway through the season. Zwinak started the season ranked 4th on the depth chart, but quickly jumped up to the top spot after an impressive 94 yards rushing on 18 carries in Penn State’s victory over Temple. The sophomore tailback has dominated in Big Ten play, rushing for a combined 221 and three touchdowns in wins against Illinois and Northwestern. “ZZ Top” will be looking to rush for 100+ yards for the third consecutive contest against the Hawkeyes, who have only allowed 100 or more rushing yards to an opposing running back once this season – to Michigan State’s workhorse, LaVeon Bell.
Penn State will try to set the tone early with Zwinak, and control the pace of the game. If Penn State’s offensive line can continue to control the line of scrimmage and open up big holes for the running backs, it will be a long day for the Iowa defense.
Will Iowa’s offense be able to score enough points against Penn State’s defense?
Iowa’s offense hasn’t exactly been lighting up the scoreboard this season, averaging only 22 points/game, which ranks 100th in Division 1A football. However, as we saw last week against the Spartans, the Hawkeyes prefer to play hard nose football, and like to pound the ball and control the tempo with running back Mike Weisman. However, both Weisman and sophomore Damon Bullock are listed as doubtful for Saturday night’s contest, which means that Iowa will be relying on sophomore Jordan Canzeri. Canzeri, listed at 5’ 9”, 180 lbs., will be making his 2012 debut with the Hawkeyes.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is disappointed in losing two of his best running backs, but said his team would not become one dimensional. “We are not going to give up on the run, but we are going to try to compensate a little bit and spread it around and do what we can.”
Penn State’s defense ranks 15th in the nation in points/game, giving up only 16 points per contest. Junior quarterback James Vandenberg will have to perform better than he did in last year’s game against the Lions, in which he completed only 50% of his passes for 169 yards, and threw two costly interceptions.
The numbers lean heavily in Penn State’s favor, and the subtraction of Iowa’s two best running backs really tips the scale in the Lions favor. However, the game will be played at 8 PM ET in Iowa City, and the Hawkeyes will be fired up in front of a raucous home crowd. I think Penn State’s offense will jump out to a lead in the first half, but Iowa’s scrappy defense will hang tough and keep the Hawkeyes in the game. Iowa’s quarterback James Vandenberg will play well to compensate for the Hawkeyes weak rushing attack, but in the end, I think Vandenberg throws a costly interception in the final quarter to seal the victory for the Lions.
Final Score: Penn State 28 Iowa Hawkeyes 17.