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Iowa Hawkeyes at Penn State Nittany Lions: Preview, Predictions & Prognostications

When: Sat. Nov. 5, 2016; 7:30 pm ET
Where: State College, PA; Beaver Stadium (106,572)
TV: BTN
All-Time Series: Penn State leads 13-12
Last Meeting: Penn State 38-14 win, in 2012
Line: Penn State (-7.5)

The November schedule begins with a solid slate of Big Ten games, including two night games with serious division title implications. Penn State comes into this game at 4-1 in conference play, one game behind Michigan in the East Division chase. Similarly, Iowa has a 3-2 conference record and stands one game back of Nebraska in the West Division. One of these teams will all but be knocked out of the Big Ten championship chase on Saturday night in Happy Valley.

The Hawkeyes are coming off a bye, so this team should be healthy and ready with some interesting schemes to try and knock the Nittany Lions off course. However, what used to be relatively familiar Big Ten rivals have become less so with conference expansion, having no games since 2012. That lack of familiarity will be an interesting factor as the Hawkeyes try to win in front of 100,000+ hostile fans.

The Nittany Lions are surprisingly ranked in the top 12 of the initial College Football Playoff committee rankings. Will this pleasant surprise go to the heads of a developing team, or will the Lions stay all business, like a week ago when the huge upset win over Ohio State was followed by a blowout win in a tricky noon kickoff at Purdue? Let’s take a deeper look at this prime time showdown.

1 Burning Question: Will Iowa wilt or thrive under the pressure of a tough road environment?

There are tough road environments and big stadiums all over the Big Ten, but only three of those stadiums hold 100,000 or more fans (Michigan, PSU, OSU) and all sit in the East Division. Thus, Iowa does not get many chances to play in these types of venues (only one such road game since 2010), and this team has not often won in those rare opportunities. The pressure of an unusually hostile environment may be a task too tall for the Hawkeyes.

However, even with that history, and Penn State being 5-0 at home this season, one also has to consider that Iowa is 3-0 on the road this season. Sure, two of those wins are against Rutgers and Purdue, but the Hawkeyes have found a way to get the job done thus far when traveling, with the only slip-ups in 2016 coming at Kinnick Stadium. Let’s also not forget that this same team was perfect on the road last year during the 12-0 season as well, so Iowa has a long streak of thriving on the road as well.

One of these hot streaks must come to an end, and with it will go the chances (in all likelihood) for a Big Ten championship. The stakes do not get any better than that, and it will be fun to watch whether the Hawkeyes can prevail in one of the hardest environments in the country, especially when the Nittany Lions are good.

2 Key Stats:

— +7, and 5.  That’s the turnover margin (3rd in B1G) and the total interceptions (13th in B1G) for Iowa.  Through 8 games, the one thing Iowa has done exceedingly well is limit mistakes in the form of turnovers. Although the defense led by Desmond King was expected to produce far more than 5 interceptions, the Hawkeyes have turned the ball over themselves only 5 total times this season, making it easy to have a top-tier turnover margin number. Big special teams plays and turnovers can flip the outcome of close games, and at least statistically, both of these critical factors strongly favor the Hawkeyes.

— 25.3%. That’s the 3rd down conversion percentage for Penn State in 2016 (14th in B1G).  In most statistical categories, the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes are middle-of-the-road teams or at least similar to one another. One exception to that general rule is converting third downs, where Penn State is, by far, the worst in the conference. Iowa has had some struggles on offense, but if the Hawkeye defense can stop Penn State from sustaining long drives in this game, Iowa will have a chance to win. And if the Hawkeyes do just this with a lead, the hostile crowd may be completely taken out of the game as a factor.

3 Key Players:

Saquon Barkley, Penn State RB: Even though Penn State has not put up great team rushing numbers this season, Barkley still leads the Big Ten in rushing individually thanks to a 111 yard per game average (including over 200 yards last week). He has also added 10 touchdowns, including some really big scores like the game-winning touchdown in overtime against Minnesota a few weeks ago. Iowa will be looking to pressure young quarterback Trace McSorley into mistakes, but the Hawkeyes will need to take away McSorley and Barkley in the running game if that game plan is to be effective. Slowing down Barkley will be easier said than done, however.

Desmond King, Iowa CB: Sure, King has not come close to his school-record 8 interceptions of the 2015 season with only 1 so far in 2016, but he’s always a threat against quarterbacks like McSorley who have not played against him yet. In addition to great coverage, King also is a huge contributor on special teams. His average on kick returns is 32 yards per return, easily the best numbers for any player with more than 5 returns on the season in the Big Ten. Every time King is involved in a play or touches the ball, big things could happen for the Hawkeyes.

Josey Jewell, Iowa LB: Although it is tempting to name either starting quarterback as a third key player, instead Jewell makes the cut as perhaps the most important player to slow down the Penn State running game. Jewell has 77 tackles on the season, which is evidence of how well he figures out where the opposing offense is going to make the stop. Just like with Desmond King, the Nittany Lions will need to scheme well to limit the impact of Jewell and Iowa’s big time defensive players. Don’t be surprised if Jewell is used to spy on McSorley at times to limit broken play runs which could otherwise go for big first downs, even though that’s not normal in the Iowa game plan.

 4 Staff Predictions:

Andy: Penn State 31-10
Dave: Penn State 27-20
Phil H.: Penn State 31-17
Philip R.: Penn State 28-17
Zach: Penn State 24-21

Dave is a FWAA member and a Columnist focusing on Big Ten football for talking10. Before joining talking in 2014, he was a Featured Columnist for three years at Bleacher Report and previously wrote for seven years on SouthernCollegeSports.com. He was born in Hawkeye Country and went to college in Columbus, so there's plenty of B1G running through his blood. Dave is a patent and trademark attorney in his day job. If you have any questions in those areas or about his latest articles, please contact him on Twitter @BuckeyeFitzy.

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