By JAMES ALLAN
IOWA CITY, Iowa — The University of Iowa football team’s season will be defined in November.
The Hawkeyes’ four-week season begins Saturday with a primetime matchup in Happy Valley against 20th-ranked Penn State. The game will begin at 6:42 p.m. (CT) from Beaver Stadium in University Park, Pennsylvania.
“It’s what we do every day from here on out that’s going to define this season for us,” UI head coach Kirk Ferentz said during a Tuesday news conference in the Stew and LeNore Hansen Football Performance Center. “The big thing is what we do this month. The best way to do that is to handle it a day and week at a time. That’s where our focus is.”
Ferentz called Iowa’s bye week productive following its 17-9 loss to No. 10 Wisconsin on Oct. 22. The week gave the Hawkeye veterans a chance to recharge and the younger players a chance to move forward.
“We got both of those things accomplished for the most part,” said Ferentz.
Penn State brings a four-game winning streak into Saturday’s contest. Since falling at No. 4 Michigan on Sept. 24, the Nittany Lions have defeated Minnesota (29-26), Maryland (38-14), No. 2 Ohio State (24-21), and Purdue (62-24). Penn State is 5-0 at Beaver Stadium.
“They’re playing well,” said Ferentz. “It’s a tough environment to play in. We have our hands full; they’re playing in sync and with great confidence, rightfully so.”
Penn State’s offense is led by sophomore running back Saquon Barkley — the Big Ten’s top rusher at 111.0 yards per game. Barkley, a Maxwell Award semifinalist, ran for a career-high 207 yards (and had 277 all-purpose yards) in the win at Purdue to run his season total to 888 yards.
“(Barkley) is a good football player,” said Ferentz. “He played well last year, and is playing better now. He’s tough and strong and he can run. You might think you have him — it looked like Minnesota had him contained — and then, boom, he makes the biggest play of the game. That’s what great players do.”
It will take a team effort to slow down a Nittany Lion offense averaging 33.6 points per game.
“Everyone has to roll in the run game if we’re going to be successful,” said Ferentz. “The thing that makes it tough is they have good receivers, the tight end is a good, tall receiver, and the quarterback is a guy who can run or pass. He’ll hurt you both ways.
“They put a lot of pressure on you. It’s not just standing up and taking one thing away. If you do, you’re going to pay for it.”
Quarterback Trace Sorley is completing 55.2 percent of his passes for 1,818 yards with 12 touchdowns, while also running for 251 yards. Three players have 20 or more receptions, including Chris Godwin, who has 30 catches for 422 yards and five touchdowns.
Iowa is the underdog heading into Happy Valley. It’s a position Ferentz can look to the 2008 team to draw upon.
“It’s a matter of choice for our football team,” said Ferentz. “The thing I’ll always remember about that ’08 team is the way they responded. We were 3-3, the sky was falling outside, and it was doom and gloom everywhere you turned, yet those guys never flinched. They kept pushing.
“It wasn’t perfect; they lost one game at Illinois, but they kept pushing week-to-week-to-week. The next thing you know, they ended up 20th in the country and won in a convincing fashion in the bowl game (Outback Bowl, 31-10 victory over South Carolina).”
It’s why Ferentz stresses opportunity. There are four opportunities remaining in the regular season, it’s a matter of seizing them.
“One of the great things about sports, as opposed to real life, the opportunity is pretty equal,” said Ferentz. “On Saturday, we both have a chance to win the game.”
The contest will be televised on BTN with Kevin Kugler, Matt Millen, and Lisa Byington on the call.