It's Strength Against Strength

Oct. 7, 2011

Editor’s Note: The following first appeared in the University of Iowa’s Hawk Talk Daily, an e-newsletter that offers a daily look at the Iowa Hawkeyes, delivered free each morning to thousands of fans of the Hawkeyes worldwide.

IOWA CITY, Iowa — One of the more interesting story lines to the Iowa-Penn State football game tomorrow is how the high-octane Hawkeye offense will fare against the hard-hitting Penn State defense.

Iowa averages 421.8 yards per game and has accumulated 640 yards during its last five quarters. The Nittany Lion defense — which features seven senior starters, including all four in the secondary — allows 250.4 yards per game. Penn State held Indiana State to 170 yards and Temple to 197.

University of Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said there is “no question” that Penn State will have the toughest defense of any of the Hawkeyes’ first five opponents.

“They have four seniors in their back end and every guy has played a lot of good football,” Ferentz said. “They also have depth in that front with good size and athleticism. They play well and have a lot of depth.”

UI running back Marcus Coker has gained 380 yards this season with an average of 4.4 yards per carry. The Nittany Lions allow 95 yards on the ground per game and 2.7 yards per carry. Throw out a 111-yard performance by Alabama’s Trent Richardson in week two and the leading ground gainers for Penn State’s opponents have rushed for 22, 43, 50 and 60 yards.

“They’re a fast, strong defense, and they just throw the offensive linemen out of the way,” Coker said. “They’re big and physical; it’s going to be a tough game.”

While Hawkeye quarterback James Vandenberg throws for 273.8 yards a game, the experience-laden Penn State secondary has helped limit opponents to 118 fewer yards (155.4) per outing. On top of that, the Nittany Lions have intercepted six passes as part of their 11 forced turnovers.

“It’s Penn State — they have great players and a great scheme, so as a whole, they’re not going to give you easy plays,” Vandenberg said.

Vandenberg has started two road games in his career and is still searching for his first road victory. More than 106,000 Penn State fans will join their defense in making sure things don’t come easily for Iowa’s starting signal-caller.

“We haven’t won a game on the road this year, so that’s going to be a challenge,” Vandenberg said. “This is something we all look forward to. That’s why we came here to play these Big Ten games in great environments. Penn State definitely has one of those great environments.”

Hawkeye wide receiver Marvin McNutt, Jr., is one touchdown reception from tying Tim Dwight and Danan Hughes for Iowa’s career record of 21. McNutt did not play in the 2008 game between the schools (a 24-23 victory by the Hawkeyes) and was held without a catch during Iowa’s 21-10 win in 2009. Last season he grabbed five passes for 93 yards, leading Iowa to its third victory in a row over the Nittany Lions, 24-3.

“It’s a fun place to play; you love to play up there,” McNutt said. “This is a typical Penn State team — they fly to the ball, they play good defense and they play together, and that helps them. We have to hope we execute better than they do Saturday.”

While McNutt put up big numbers against the Nittany Lions last fall (he had four catches for 73 yards by halftime), vital players like Coker and Vandenberg have yet to play against a Joe Paterno-coached group. It is the league-opener for the Hawkeyes.

“This is the real meat of our season,” Vandenberg said.

“Everybody’s more focused and everybody is looking forward to this game,” added Coker.

“It’s a different season for us,” McNutt said. “This is Big Ten play and every game is going to be tough.”

Iowa averages nearly 38 points a game; Penn State allows 12. The Hawkeyes have won eight of the last nine meetings against the Nittany Lions and five of the last six in Happy Valley.

Throw out the 2007 meeting and it’s safe to say that Iowa traditionally brings one of its better efforts against Penn State. According to Ferentz, one of Iowa’s better efforts will be required again tomorrow.

“Typically Penn State teams do not beat themselves, it’s been that way 40-plus years,” Ferentz said. “You better be ready to play your best and that’s going to be the challenge for us this week. We’ll see if we can get there.”

Kickoff from Beaver Stadium in University Park is scheduled for 2:36 p.m. (CT). The game is nationally televised by ABC and ESPN.