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5 keys for today’s game between Penn State and Iowa

Five things to look for as No. 10 Penn State visits one of the Big Ten’s toughest venues to face No. 17 Iowa, which is always difficult to beat in Saturday night games.

No. 1: Franklin’s quest

For everything he’s accomplished in his career and at Penn State, James Franklin still has yet to win a true road game against a ranked team.

Franklin is 0-6 in such games at Penn State, after going 0-5 at Vanderbilt. His teams have lost the 11 games by an average of 25.8 points.

Ouch.

Here are the six road losses he’s had at Penn State:

• 38-10 at No. 1 Ohio State in 2015

• 55-16 at No. 6 Michigan State in 2015

• 49-10 at No. 4 Michigan in 2016

Now, if we stop right here, those three losses were by an average of a whopping 35.3 points. But there should be some context because it wasn’t until after that debacle in Michigan in 2016 that Penn State really started to get things going as a program under Franklin.

Here are the next two losses, which occurred in back-to-back weeks:

• 39-38 at No. 6 Ohio State in 2017

• 27-24 at No. 24 Michigan State in 2017

Penn State was No. 2 in the country and led that Ohio State game 35-20 in the third quarter before choking it away, with J.T. Barrett completing his final 16 passes to lead the Buckeyes’ comeback.

The following week at Michigan State provided one of the craziest games in PSU history. There was a 3-hour and 23-minute delay because of lightning, DeAndre Thompkins dropped a fourth-down pass with the Lions driving for a potential go-ahead score, then the Spartans kicked a field goal on the final play to win.

These two losses were both very winnable games but ended in wild fashion to keep Franklin winless on the road against ranked teams.

Then there was this debacle:

• 42-7 at No. 5 Michigan in 2018

Trace McSorley was hobbled with a knee injury and too immobile, and the Wolverines destroyed Penn State in embarrassing fashion.

Particulars are important for context when throwing out statistics such as Franklin’s 0-11 record. Regardless, 0-11 is 0-11, and Franklin will continue to be doubted by a lot of people until he finds a way to get the job done on the road against quality teams.

If he fails again tonight, it will only add fuel for Franklin’s doubters.

No. 2: The environment

Penn State is the better team. I have no doubt in saying that.

But it’s been pointed out all week how difficult it is to win at Kinnick Stadium, especially at night. The Lions stole a victory on the final play two years ago with McSorley throwing a TD pass on fourth down, and don’t think that Iowa has forgotten about that heartbreaking defeat.

The Hawkeyes lost last week at Michigan, 10-3. The belief here is that loss makes Iowa even more likely to win tonight, since the players will be awfully sore about it. Then again, sometimes losses that like linger and hurt the team the following week, which certainly could be the case here.

I’m picking Iowa to win this game solely because of the location. Usually being at home is worth about 3 points to a team, but in this case, I think it’s worth about 6-7 for the Hawkeyes.

No. 3: Test for Clifford

Sean Clifford is having an excellent season, and he was terrific in his first road start at Maryland, going 26 of 31 for 398 yards.

This isn’t Maryland. And Clifford could be in for a tough night.

Iowa has allowed only 8.8 points per game, and it knows PSU’s running game has struggled. Kirk Ferentz and his coaches will devise a defensive scheme to try and get to Clifford as much as possible, so he will need to make quick reads and get the ball out in a hurry.

A big part of Iowa’s game plan — and every team’s game plan going forward — will be to take away the deep throws and force PSU to drive the field. It’s still debatable if the Lions can do that consistently against good teams.

If Clifford can play well and lead Penn State to a nice win, this could wind up being his coming-out party as a star college quarterback.

But …

No. 4: Lions must

run ball

Penn State can’t be one dimensional. The running game has had issues, and if the Lions can’t get things going on the ground, they could be in for a long evening.

There’s been a lot of talk about Noah Cain getting more carries, and we could see that tonight. I’m thinking Cain and Journey Brown will handle the bulk of the carries.

Ricky Slade has been a big disappointment so far, and Devyn Ford is still probably the fourth-best tailback, so his touches could start to vanish

No. 5: Players to watch

PSU: Offensive line. The guys up front must run and pass block well to help the Lions be balanced.

Iowa: QB Nate Stanley. He’s had a good career, but he was awful last week against Michigan, and he threw a terrible interception inside the 10 to kill Iowa’s chances last year at Penn State. You know he’s had this game circled all year.

Prediction: Iowa, 19-17.

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