The Morning Call
If Lions want to notch season’s first victory, these 2 matchups are key
Penn State’s 0-4 start this season is tied for its worst start in program history, and things aren’t expected to turn around when Iowa visits Beaver Stadium on Saturday. The Hawkeyes — coming offback-to-back wins — are favored by2.5 points. Butif PSUwants to earn its first win of 2020 and salvage what’s left of its season, it will need to dominate its matchups.
Here are two key matchups to Saturday’s game (3:30 p.m., BTN) that we think will directly determine the outcome:
PS U QB WILL LE VIS/ SEAN CLIFFORD VS. IOWA SECONDARY
Penn State head coach James Franklin said as late as Wednesday that he hadn’t decided who would start at quarterback between redshirt junior Sean Clifford and red shirt sophomore Will Levis. Levis seems like the likely option to be QB1 — at least against Iowa — because of his good decision-making when he was subbed in for Clifford during the final two-plus quarters against Nebraska last weekend. The6-foot-3, 222-poundquarterback finished 14-for-31 passing for 219 yards and added 61 rushing yards in an effort that almost allowed Penn State to come back from a 24-3 deficit.
But regardless of who gets the nod, winning the battle against the Hawkeyes’ secondary will be key to the Nittany Lions’ chances of winning their first game of the season.
Through four games so far, Clifford has thrown six interceptions to go withninepassing touchdowns. Those miscues have often buried Penn State early into a hole. The Nittany Lions have given up 33 points off turnovers this season, andagainst the Cornhuskers, Clifford’s first-quarter interception and second-quarter fumble cost Penn State 10 points.
Iowa has averaged two intercept ions per game( tied for No .2 in the country) through its first four contests. In the Hawk eyes ’49-7 rout of Michigan State on Nov .7, they forced Spartans quarterback Rocky Lombardi to throw three interceptions. And last week in a 35-7 win over Minnesota, the Hawkeyes picked off Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan twice.
Aside from capitalizing on other teams’ errors, Iowa has madeit generally difficult for opponents to move
the ball through the air overall. The Hawkeyes rank No. 33 in the nation in passing yards allowed per game, giving up 201.5 per contest. They’ve also allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete only an average of 54 percent of their passes — good for 18th in the country.
Whether it’s Levis or Clifford who gets the start for Penn State on Saturday, the Nittany Lions’ quarterback will have to be smart withthefootball. If either quarterback tries to force things, Iowa’s stingy secondary will make him pay. And as a result, it will be hard for Penn State to give itself even a slight chance of picking up a win.
— Parth Upadhyaya
IOWAWRIHMIRSMITHMAR SET TE VS. PENN STATE SECONDARY
PennState has struggled defensively this season and has been gashed over and over again by big plays.
Ohio State wide receiver Garrett Wilson took a jet sweep 62 yards on the first play of the Buckeyes’s win over the Nittany Lions, setting up an easy touchdown shortly thereafter. Maryland wide receiver Rakim Jarrett scored twice against Penn State from 42 and 62 yards out, while the Terrapins scored all five of their touchdowns from at least 35 yards out. Nebraska wide receiver Zavier Betts took a flysweepfrom quarterback Luke McCaffrey 45 yards for a touchdown last week against Penn State.
All three of Penn State’s last three opponents made big plays to score and put the Nittany Lions down early. Their lack of discipline and poor tackling has allowed these plays to happen and has opened the door for teams to continue trying to gash the defense until it proves it can make stops.
This week, that means Iowa should look to get the ball in the hands of senior wide receiver Ih mir Smith-Mars et te. The senior has been a big play threat for the Hawk eyes for four years and especially came on last season, when he had a play of at least 20 yards in 10 of the team’s 13 games.
He’s only played in three of Iowa’ s four games because he was suspendedafter being arrested for operating a vehicle while under the influence, but he showed some of what he’s capable of when the team took on Northwestern. He caught seven passes for 84 yards in that game. He also has three rushing attempts this season as the Hawkeyes try to find ways to get him the ball.
New starting quarterback Spencer Pet rash as a strong arm, but can struggle with accuracy, making it more important for the Hawkeyes to scheme ways for Smith-Mar set te to get the ball in space. When he’ s in space, he’ s one of the best players in the Big Ten at making players miss or just blowing right by them.
The Nittany Lions have been bad at preventing explosive plays this season and the senior wide receiver is the exact type of player who can give them trouble from that perspective. If he’s able to break a big play or two — especially early in the game — it will be difficult for Penn State to keep pace with a struggling offense.