After a week off, Penn State (4-2, 2-0 Big Ten) takes its four-game winning streak to Iowa on Saturday to take on the Hawkeyes. And it will be no easy task.
Iowa (4-2, 2-0) rolls into the game with momentum after defeating Michigan State on the road in double over time last week.
Though the Nittany Lions have played confident -- and at times inspiring -- football lately, Bill O’Brien insists it is Iowa that has all the momentum in this week’s matchup.
“This is a very, very tough schedule starting with an excellent Iowa football team that plays a physical brand of football,” O’Brien said. “Our players need to be ready for, no question about it.”
Here are five storylines to follow:
Kill the Kinnick curse: There’s no way around it: Kinnick Stadium is a tough place to play. Since 2008, opposing teams are just 7-25 on Iowa's home field. The Nittany Lions haven’t won there since 1999. "Their fans are going to be geared up all day and ready to come in and heckle us," Matt McGloin said. To prepare, Bill O’Brien played loud music at Wednesday’s practice. It’s Penn State’s first night game, so that will be an adjustment as well. Most of the older players will know what to expect but how will younger guys -- Allen Robinson, Bill Belton, Kyle Carter, etc -- respond?
Kickin’ Ficken: Sophomore Sam Ficken has taken a break from the spotlight over the past few weeks -- he’s been a non-factor over the past four games -- but don’t forget about him. Part of the reason O’Brien goes for it so often on fourth down is because he doesn’t fully trust his kicker, who missed 4-of-5 field goals in the Virginia game. But Penn State’s going to have to kick a field goal at some point. In a hostile environment like Kinnick Stadium, will Ficken be ready?
Defensive battle: The game pits two of the nation’s top scoring defenses against each other. The Lions rank 15th in the country, allowing 16 points per game, while the Hawkeyes are 21st (17.2). Four of Iowa’s first six games have been decided by three points or less (2-2), including two games decided by one point. Don’t be surprised if this, too, is a close one.
Red hot: Penn State has gotten off to early starts this season, outscoring opponents a combined 52-0 in the first quarter. Indeed, the Lions seem to move the ball well to begin the game. But can they sustain it throughout the game -- and can they convert when necessary? Penn State has converted only 70.37 percent of its red-zone opportunities this season, which is 11th in the conference. See if they can bring that number up.
Who’s running the show: For once this season, Penn State’s opponent has more questions at running back than the Lions do. Hawkeyes starter Mark Weisman, who ran for at least 100 yards over the past four games, is doubtful leaving Kirk Ferentz in a bind. Penn State’s situation is a bit clearer -- but not completely in focus. Belton is listed as the team’s starting running back on the depth chart. Running back coach Charles London said Belton is “100 percent healed” from his ankle injury. But it’s hard to imagine that Zach Zwinak, who has emerged as Penn State’s top option over the past two games, will not play some factor -- especially in a game this physical. So who gets the bulk of the carries? Probably depends on who gets hot first.