If Iowa (5-3, 3-2 B1G) has any chance of beating a No. 12 ranked Penn State team (6-2, 4-1 B1G) that’s frankly on fire at the moment, it’s going to start and end up front.
Offensively, the Hawkeyes need to protect quarterback C.J. Beathard and make enough room for running backs Akrum Wadley and LeShun Daniels Jr.
Iowa’s one-two punch in the backfield is certainly capable of grinding out an effective day on the ground, but the Hawkeyes’ offense goes from underwhelming to explosive in a hurry when the big men up front are creating running lanes for the thunder-lighting combo of Daniels Jr. and Wadley.
Wadley has been a revelation this season for Iowa, especially considering that he was expected to just be Daniels’ backup — a player who could get a few effective carries per game while allowing the 6-foot, 225 pound bruiser some time to catch his breath. To say that Wadley has exceeded expectations this season may be an understatement then. He’s rushed 90 times for 636 yards and eight touchdowns so far this season. He’s had three 100 yard games and has averaged five yards per carry or better in six of eight contests.
Wadley’s explosive play has made it easier for Daniels Jr. to get going at times, and the senior from Warren, Ohio is having himself a solid year as a result. Daniels Jr. has rushed 119 times and has notched 624 yards and six touchdowns. He’s had two 100-plus yard games, including a 150 yard, two touchdown performance at Purdue.
The long and short of it is that when Iowa’s running game is going, the Hawkeyes are a much better team.
Case in point?
In wins that saw Iowa score over 40 points (against Miami of Ohio, against Iowa State and against Purdue), the Hawkeyes rushed for 212 yards, 198 yards and 365 yards respectively. In Iowa’s three losses so far this season (against North Dakota State University, Northwestern and No. 10 Wisconsin), the Hawkeyes rushed for 34 yards, 79 yards and 83 yards respectively.
Against a Penn State defensive that’s ranked only 10th in the Big Ten against the rush — giving up 183.38 yards per game on the ground with 16 rushing touchdowns — Iowa’s rushing offense needs to get off to a strong start and sustain that momentum in Happy Valley throughout the contest.
Not only would a strong rushing game help take the crowd out of the game — a crowd that’s undoubtedly going to be feeling the momentum of the Nittany Lions’ four-game winning streak, mind you — but the threat of the run could keep Penn State’s defenders at bay a bit when it comes to rushing the passer.
PSU currently ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in sacks, totalling 23 so far on the season and notching 2.88 sacks per game. So not only will Iowa’s offensive front have to be strong against the run, but they’ll have to protect quarterback C.J. Beathard from a very potent pass rush as well.
For a unit that’s ranked 11th in the Big Ten in sack protection, having given up 20 sacks so far this season and 2.50 per game, this is a matchup that could cause some trouble for Iowa. It’s a matchup that head coach Kirk Ferentz said comes down to more than just the offensive line, though:
“We’ve got to play better,” he said when Penn State’s pass rush was brought up in his weekly press conference. “That’s the biggest thing we’re focused on. Like the entire passing game, it’s not just the line. It’s everything — guys getting open, getting the ball out on time, that type of thing. Certainly, protection, whether it’s the linemen, backs, tight ends involved. Everybody’s got to roll.
“It’s going to be a team effort, and we know it’s going to be a big challenge. Hopefully, we can rise to that.”
It would be one thing if Iowa only had to worry about its offensive line play against Penn State, but the Hawkeyes are going to have to focus on stopping a strong Penn State rushing attack as well.
Both offensive and defensive fronts will have to play strong games in order for Iowa to pick up the win.
The Nittany Lions are currently ranked No. 12 in the Big Ten in rushing offense, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. It doesn’t tell the story of sophomore running back Saquon Barkley, who has rushed for 888 yards and 10 touchdowns this season off the strength of 147 carries.
— Penn State On BTN (@PennStateOnBTN) October 31, 2016
Barkley has been a beast for Penn State and he propelled himself into the Heisman Trophy conversation with a 207 yard, two touchdown performance against Purdue this past weekend. It was his second 200-plus yard game in three games, and considering he’s averaging just over six yards per carry, if the Hawkeyes can’t stop him they won’t have a chance to come away victorious, especially playing on the road.
“Oh, boy, I don’t know where to start,” Ferentz said when asked about Barkley. “The guy is a really good player. He played well last year, and he’s playing better now. He’s tough and strong, start with that, and he can run.”
The Bottom Line
Iowa needs a win in order to become bowl eligible and it also needs a win to keep it from slipping into the lower portion of the Big Ten West. With games against No. 3 Michigan and No. 10 Nebraska still on the schedule — with a game at Illinois sandwiched in between — the Hawkeyes have very little wiggle room and will need to play their best football of 2016 in order to salvage this season and put out a respectable product a year after going 12-2 and playing in both the Big Ten Championship and the Rose Bowl.
It starts with getting a win in a tough environment at Penn State, and the game within the game will be played on the front lines — which is appropriate for a battle between two Big Ten opponents.