Iowa-PSU Game Preview/Prediction

With so many undercurrents running through Iowa's game against Penn State on Saturday (11:00am CST, ESPN2), it's next to impossible to get your mind around it all. So in this week's Iowa game preview, Jon Miller takes a step into his past, and pulls out his slide ruler and scientific calculator and gets downright Sagarin. It's a true stat fest, but games are not decided on paper so he also takes a look at the intangibles. You will not find a more comprehensive breakdown anywhere else...


There are a lot of themes, incentive and story lines in this week's game which sees Iowa travel to play Penn State at State College, Pennsylvania.

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz is a PA native, he grew up watching Paterno's Nittany Lions, some Penn State fans would like to see him be Paterno's successor, some Penn State fans would like to see Paterno retire, Ferentz's Hawkeyes have beaten Paterno's Nittany Lions four straight times, including two in a row in Happy Valley, several Hawks will be playing in front of some home fans, Iowa is down to their 5th and 6th string tailbacks and their lone tailback who is on scholarship; folks, that is just for starters.

One of the bigger story lines that just developed this week is that Ferentz and his son Brian were not with the team as their entire family traveled to Pennsylvania as Kirk's father, John, died at the age of 84. Kirk and Brian will join the Hawkeye traveling party later today in Pennsylvania.

Then you have a young but growing Iowa offense in front of 100,000-plus fans in the most hostile environment they will play in all season, and one of the loudest venues in the country in Beaver Stadium. The last time Iowa went on the road, it was 111,000-plus at Michigan, and they turned it over five times and lost by 13 points.

However, Drew Tate and his counterparts have done a lot of growing up since then, right before our very eyes. Yet, road games offer so many unique challenges and distractions that do not include the Nittany litany I mentioned above.

So in the words of everyone's favorite man in uniform, MXC's Captain Tenneal, let's ‘Get It On!'


I have held off long enough. In previous years, I have broken down the stats in my pre game previews and predictions, but I have yet to do that this season. But today, I am going to the calculator. I want to see if a game that looks so even on paper will look that way after going inside the numbers.

When analyzing the national statistical rankings between these two teams, it's hard to find any huge advantages that one team might have over the other.

Let's begin with strength of schedule, which is a good place to start when you want to compare stats. Everyone's favorite computer sports aficionado, Jeff Sagarin, ranks Iowa's schedule as the 34th most difficult in the land with Penn State's close behind in the 38th slot. So you are talking about a statistical draw.

That is music to a stat geek's ears, let me tell you. So...(cue the 70's music) it's time to, ahhhhhhhh, geek out!

The closeness in the strength of schedule means, as much as statistics can be accepted, that the body of data I am about to compare and discuss, though not acquired in a vacuum, has some relevance. It's up for your approval as to just how relevant it all is. There are 117 Division One football teams, and the numbers in parenthesis below will be their ranking out of 117 teams. So if a number is 59 or higher, that is below average, as 58.5 is considered ‘average' out of 117 teams.

We all know that Iowa has had its troubles running the ball (106/117). Penn State is above average at stopping the run (43). Iowa's average of 96.83 rushing yards per game have come against teams that have an average ranking of stopping the run of 40.3 out of 117, very close to where Penn State ranks against the run. The most generous team Iowa has played against the run is Michigan State (73). Penn State has earned their ranking playing against teams whose combined NCAA statistical rushing ranking would be 60.5, or slightly below average. Those numbers were padded against teams like Akron (103) and UCF (105).

In summary, Iowa has played against better run defenses than Penn State has played against rushing offenses, in aggregate. But that ‘edge', and you know as well as I do that anything to do with Iowa and running the football this year can hardly be looked on as an edge, is somewhat negated as Iowa is without it's top four tailbacks.

So, when Iowa runs, let's call it a draw, with a lean towards Penn State.

On the flip side, Iowa has done a superb job against the run this year (5/117) while Penn State is below average (81) running the ball.

On the surface, Iowa looks to hold a significant advantage here. But a closer look at the numbers tells a different story.

One might say that Iowa's lofty ranking against the run has been padded, and you could make that argument. Kent State (96), Iowa State (85), Arizona State (100), Michigan (71) and Ohio State (104) are obviously below average to very poor rushing teams. Michigan State (17) is the lone exception among Iowa's opponents to date. That is an aggregate ranking of 78.8 (out of 117) for Iowa's opponents running the football this year.

Penn State's rushing ranking comes partly against teams like Boston College (14), Wisconsin (8) and Purdue (7) who are solid against the run. All Penn State opponents, in aggregate, rank 49.3 in stopping the run.

OK, there is a flaw here, because we would need to keep on peeling the layers off of the onion to see who the opponent's opponent's played against.

Iowa has the advantage here, though it might not be as dominant as it looks based on the raw number. I guess we'll find out on Saturday.

Enough of the ultra analysis, as I can sense some vapor lock out there.

Let's stick with the surface numbers.

Penn State has not allowed more than 21 points in any one game this season and their opponents are averaging just 16 points per game; a very, very impressive number. The Hawks are not doing too badly in this category, either, allowing just 19 points per game. Take away the Debacle in the Desert when ASU lit Iowa up for 44 points, and the Hawks points per game allowed average drops to 14.0.

Penn State has played an explosive passing team, the Purdue Boilermakers, and held them to 20 points. So you have to respect what their defense has done this season.

But the Nittany Lions are 8th in the Big Ten in Red Zone defense in all games played, while the Hawkeyes are number one in that category.

Penn State is 28th in the nation in pass defense, while Iowa's passing offense ranks 25th. Purdue's Kyle Orton still threw for a lot of yards two weeks ago in Happy Valley (he was 24 of 35, for 275 yards, two INT's and one TD), but those INT's were Orton's first of the season. Orton completed 68.5-perent of his passes.

Iowa's passing offense ranks 35th in the nation right now, but it's 35th with a bullet. Sophomore Drew Tate is tops in the Big Ten throwing the football both in yards per game (314) and passer rating in Big Ten play only. Tate ranks 3rd/2nd in the league in those categories in all games played. Tate might be the hottest quarterback in the nation right now, as he has thrown for 671 yards, five touchdowns and just one INT over his last two games and has completed 51 of 76 passes (67.1-percent).

The big difference here is that Orton is a senior that has started a lot of games in tough environments, while Tate is a true sophomore who will be making the seventh start of his career. Iowa fans will see what the talented Texan is made of this week.

The teams are nearly identical in their total defense rankings nationally, with Iowa being 25th and PSU 26th. Iowa is 80th in total offense while Penn State is 72nd. Iowa is 28th in net punting and Penn State is 57th. Senior punter David Bradley will be called upon to deliver in Happy Valley the same way then senior punter Jason Baker delivered at PSU for Iowa in 2000, in Iowa's thrilling overtime win; Baker's five punts averaged 50.2 yards.

Iowa is 76th in kickoff returns, another area that has been hurt by the injuries to so many running backs that were also handling KR duties, and Penn State is 57th. Iowa is 8th in the nation in punt returns, averaging 16.75 yards per return. Walner Belleus spelled Ed Hinkel last week after Hinkel hurt his elbow when he was tackled, a play where he fumbled deep in OSU territory in the first half.

Penn State ranks 100th in pass efficiency, while Iowa ranks 25th. This is senior quarterback Zach Mills' chance to shine, and when he gets a hot hand, he is dangerous. Iowa fans can attest to that, as Mills helped the Nittany Lions roar back from a 35-13 fourth quarter deficit in 2002 to force the game to overtime. He was 23 of 44 on that day, for 399 yards and four touchdown passes.


So you have enough statistical data to choke a horse and make your coworkers wonder if you might actually BE Jeff Sagarin, as you gather around the water cooler today.

But as Iowa fans know as well as anyone, the game is much more about heart and frame of mind than it is data.

Iowa has responded amazingly well after being knocked to the canvass early against Arizona State. If that game had been a boxing match, it would have been a TKO in the third round.

Iowa has faced more than its fair share of adversity since Jermelle Lewis went down with an ACL injury during spring practice, 2003. That includes an ACL injury to his other knee just two games ago, plus season ending ACL injuries to Albert Young and Marcus Schnoor, numbers two and three on the pre-season depth chart at running back. Then last week, Marques Simmons, starting RB #4, severely sprained his ankle and he might not make it back this year.

The return of offensive lineman Brian Ferentz has seemingly repaired the holes in the Hawkeyes' offensive line better than a freight load of bondo. But Ferentz will carry a heavy heart into this game, as previously mentioned.

Kirk and Brian missed the majority of this week's game prep as they spent time with their family and grieved the loss of a loved one.

The positive or negative effects that a circumstance like this can have on a football team are impossible to pin down until after the game is played, if even then. But the Hawks have responded to adversity in the affirmative so many times over the past year and a half, Iowa fans have grown accustomed to expecting their team to face any off the field issue or circumstance.

Last year, they weathered the loss of their top two receivers, made it through the flu outbreak that hit the team the week before the Minnesota game and that lingered into their game at Wisconsin, en route to a 10-3 season that was an unexpected gift to the Hawkeye Nation.

This year's issues are well documented, and only a masochist would want me to recount them.

On the flip side, you have a theme that has been and will continue to be constant all season long; the revenge factor.

Penn State has lost four straight to Iowa. Joe Paterno still has nightmares about Tim Dwight from Iowa's 22-21 rain soaked victory in 1996, and he is still complaining about the officiating from Iowa's 42-25 win in overtime at Penn State in 2002.

Seriously, he is. This, from his Tuesday press conference:

Q: Iowa has beaten you four straight. Is there a style that you guys have had difficulty with?

They have been better. They were better and they got a great call by an official two years ago up here. It is as simple as that.

The people that I speak with that are in the know believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Hawkeyes have been circled on Penn State's calendar for some time. They are sick of losing to a team that their fans feel is traditionally inferior to their once mighty Nittany Lions.

(On a side note, it has been my experience that fans go to the tradition card when the present is not so good.)

Iowa also has multiple game winning streaks against Minnesota and Wisconsin, their last two opponents this season.

Arizona State and Michigan were also keyed in on Iowa earlier this year, and those clubs avenged beat downs and losing streaks.

Last year in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes held Penn State to just nine first downs and 176 yards of total offense, including just 38 on the ground. PSU Superman Michael Robinson might still be clearing the fog from his head from the hit that Kevin Worthy laid on him last year. By the way, Robinson is expected to return to Penn State's lineup this week after missing several weeks due to a scary injury. Iowa won last year's game 26-14, but led just 12-7 at intermission.

A fifth straight loss to Iowa might be the tipping point for the PSU faithful, if many of them haven't already reached it.

(NOTE: For the PSU fans reading this, you can't have Kirk Ferentz.

So many storylines, so much emotion, so many questions.


Before she went to bed on Thursday night, my wife asked me who I was going to predict to win the game.

I told her that I was leaning towards picking Penn State.

A somewhat bewildered look came over her face, and she said "You can't do that. What if the boys (meaning, the Iowa players) read that and get disappointed?" I chuckled and said that what I say or write has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the game and if any Iowa player did read this before boarding the plane for Penn State, it would not matter to them in the least bit. Plus, I reassured her that I want Iowa to win each and every game they play, but I have to call ‘em like I see ‘em if anyone is going to take this stuff seriously.

She then said that my picking Penn State to win would be like not supporting the troops. Now, she was quick to add that football is not important when compared to war, but it was the best analogy she could come up with just before falling asleep.

In the Hawkeye Nation pre-season football preview, I picked Iowa to finish 8-3, losing at Arizona State, Michigan and Penn State.

I just felt that Iowa's young offense would struggle on the road this year, and to date, they have. I did not expect Drew Tate to come on the way that he has, but I did not expect Iowa's rushing attack to be as ineffective and cursed as it has been, either.

To me, this one comes down to the venue, combined with an offense that is still somewhat green. Iowa and Ohio State returned the fewest number of starters in the league this year, and Beaver Stadium is simply one of the most difficult environments to play in.

Here is a Hawkeye Nation rewind, from our Monday Morning Quarterback conversation with former Iowa and All Big Ten quarterback Chuck Hartlieb prior to Iowa's game at Penn State in 2002:

HN: You orchestrated one of the biggest wins in Iowa history at the ‘Horseshoe' in Columbus, Ohio in 1987. That is certainly a hostile environment. How does Brad Banks have to prepare to face 108,000 fans this weekend?

Hartlieb: "It's something that is internal, something that you either have or you don't and I think that Brad Banks has it. I think he has shown good poise this year for the most part and I think that he will do well."

"As far as the Happy Valley environment, I think that the biggest factor is just how to handle crowd noise. Making sure that you are getting your signals heard at the line of scrimmage, making sure that you are still going through the proper sequence of reads, making sure that the 10 people around you are feeling the confidence that you have, because just a little bit of uncertainty or frustration by the quarterback impacts the whole offense."

"Brad has to keep his poise and adjust to the crowd noise. That will be a critical factor to Brad Banks' play on Saturday."


I think you could easily substitute Drew Tate's name in place of Brad Banks' right now, based on what we have seen this year.

Banks suffered a poor performance in 2002 in Iowa's loss to Iowa State, a game they were in control of before the Cyclones came roaring back and eventually won. He then bounced back with a great outing against Penn State, though Iowa failed to maintain a big lead, yet again.

The comparison that comes to mind right now would be Iowa's game at Michigan this season. Tate threw into blitzes at times, he tried to make something out of nothing too many times and was sacked a few times for big losses. He fumbled a shotgun snap, failed to throw the ball away, etc, and Iowa lost in front of 100,000-plus mostly due to its five turnovers.

Since then, Tate has showed great poise and an ability to learn from his mistakes. He makes you believe that he will play better this time around in a hostile environment than he did at Michigan back on September 25th, the last time Iowa's players slept in beds outside of the 319 area code.

That is 28 straight days, or nearly a month of being in your own element.

One has to wonder if some road rust has accumulated?

So that is the primary reason behind this week's prediction.


Look for Penn State to block at least one kick off of the foot of Kyle Schlicher, who is still battling trajectory issues. But getting a kick or two blocked against Penn State is no shame; as I pointed out on Tuesday morning, Nate Kaeding's missed three PAT's during his entire Iowa career. Two of them were blocks by Penn State, and they also blocked one of his field goal attempts.

And just one more for the stat lover in all of us: Using Jeff Sagarin's game predictor formula, PSU wins by .72 points, due to his home field bonus of 3.23 points.

As I always say when my gut tells me something other than an Iowa win, I hope that I am wrong and I will be rooting for them along with the rest of the Hawkeye Nation come Saturday.

CHUCK HARTLIEB'S PREDICTION, from this week's Monday Morning Quarterback installment:

"Our theme as we have talked through the year, is that it gets tougher. You have more teams aiming for you, and you don't have the underdog, revenge mentality any more. Preparation on our end gets harder. Penn State is a tough place to play.

"But we have talked about match ups and what we do in certain spots, and we match up well with the Nittany Lions. We have played well over there. The only challenges I see is that Penn State does throw the ball quite a bit, so we need to be consistent against the pass for four quarters on defense, and I think we are capable. Offensively, win a tough game in front of a huge crowd with a passing attack at its core; it's going to be a new challenge for Tate and the group.

"This game will be won or lost not necessarily by what Penn State does, but rather, if Iowa can play like they can play, without the turnovers and road mistakes. I think we will be fine.

"I will go with Iowa 27, Penn State 14."

Hawkeye Nation's Rob Howe's Prediction: Penn State 20, Iowa 17

Week One: Iowa 48, Kent State 10 (Iowa 39, Kent State 7)
Week Two: Iowa 24, Iowa State 6 (Iowa 17, Iowa State 10)
Week Three: Arizona State 23, Iowa 17 (ASU 44, Iowa 7)
Week Four: Michigan 26, Iowa 10 (Michigan 30, Iowa 17)
Week Five: Iowa 23, MSU 13 (Iowa 38, MSU 16)
Week Six: Iowa 23, Ohio State 19 (Iowa 33, OSU 7)

Jon's Game Week predictions since the start of the 2001 season: 39-5 (losses: 2001: Iowa State & Michigan; 2002: USC; 2003: Michigan State & Ohio State

Listen to Jon Miller & Jim Zabel, the legendary voice of the Iowa Hawkeyes, after the game on ‘Sound Off', exclusively on 1040, WHO. The show will begin approximately an hour after the game ends and we will break down the Saturday games as well as take your phone calls for three hours If you live in Des Moines, tune into WHO-TV 13 on their 10PM newscast for Jon Miller's ‘Eye on the Hawks' segment, and watch ‘Sound Off' on the same channel Sunday nights after the newscast for more Hawkeye insight from Jon Miller

If you are in the Des Moines area, you can stop by Off Campus Apparel and Novelties next to the Merle Hay Mall and pick up a copy of Hawkeye Nation magazine. Also, look for copies at the ‘Gameday Iowa' tent near Kinnick Stadium on home Saturdays.

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