IOWA CITY, Iowa - Saturday's Iowa-Penn State game deserves all of the attention being paid to it. It's a rare matchup of Top 5 teams in the Big Ten not including Ohio State or Michigan.
Time will tell if it truly ends up being historic. For that to happen, these programs must continue performing at the level that has them among the country's top teams so far.
The Hawkeyes began the season with a hyped-up, Top-20 matchup against Indiana. The Hoosiers have stumbled to a 2-3 start, including an 0-2 conference mark. The losses came to Iowa, Penn State and No. 5 Cincinnati.
In Week 2, Iowa and Iowa State faced off as Top 10 teams for the first time in the series. Like Indiana, the Cyclones have since fallen out of the Top 25. They need to pick it up for that meeting with the Hawkeyes to hold as much meaning in hindsight.
For those folks harkening back to No. 1 Iowa against second-ranked Michigan back in 1985, remember, the Wolverines finished that season No. 2 and the Hawkeyes ended up 10th. That they wound up being among the country's best teams that season is the reason that game stands the test of time.
For the student-athletes, staying calm and preparing for the opponent must trump the hype surrounding the game.
"You've got to block out the distractions," Iowa center Tyler Linderbaum said. "It's different than going into a hostile environment (playing at home), but it can be a big distraction in your own environment. You need to focus on what's important.
"Obviously, you want to enjoy the moment because games like this don't happen very often. But we're going to come into Saturday for one reason and one reason only, and that's to win the game."
The '21 editions of Iowa and Penn State pass the eye test. The look like Big Ten title contenders and with that championship comes big rewards, like a potential spot in the College Football Playoff. How they show up against each other serves as another piece of evidence.
If you like defense, you've come to the right place. The outfit that reaches 20 points stands a good chance of winning. It might not take that many.
The matchup features two of the top three scoring defenses in the nation. The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions rank third in the country, allowing 12.0 points per game. No. 3 Iowa sits second, giving up 11.6 points per game.
This one might come down to which offense makes the fewest mistakes. Flipping the field with special teams also could factor in heavily.
"The biggest thing is they're more veteran than they were last year. A lot of the same guys we played last year are on the team," Iowa quarterback Spencer Petras said of the Penn State defense. "They're very talented. That's probably the biggest thing that pops out. They're big. They're fast. They're strong.
"It's important for every position on offense to know that. Maybe there are some throws that I can't get away with that maybe I could against someone else. They're very talented so they'll make you pay if you're wrong in any way."
Quarterback Sean Clifford appeared on his way to stardom at Penn State after replacing Hawkeye nemesis, Trace McSorley, as the starter in 2019. Clifford earned honorable mention all-conference honors after leading the Lions to an 11-2 mark.
Clifford struggled with consistency a year ago when PSU lost it first five games, including a blowout loss to the Hawkeyes. Will Levis cut into his playing time but ended up transferring to Kentucky this past offseason. Clifford has been more reliable this fall, completing 67.3 percent of his passes for 1,336 yards, 11 touchdowns against just three interceptions.
Penn State sits 19th in the country in passing efficiency (162.17) and 26th in passing offense (286.0). Like Maryland's Taulia Tagovailoa last week, the Hawkeyes must prepare for Clifford's ability to scramble and make things happen when plays break down.
Covering Jahan Dotson also would be a good idea for Iowa. The veteran Lion receiver paces the league with 7.0 catches per game, leading to 446 yards and a conference-best six touchdowns. Parker Washington (25-331-2) lines up opposite Dotson and keeps defenses honest.
"They're pretty solid up front so it allows them to be able to run or pass," Hawkeye defensive lineman Logan Lee said. "They're well balanced but as a team our goal is to stop the run and force them to pass and get them in third and long."
These two teams have struggled to run the football consistently this season despite that historically being a big part of their identity. Iowa ranks 11th in the Big Ten with the Lions only one spot ahead of it. The Hawkeyes average 3.37 yards per attempt, and PSU sits at 3.79.
Penn State's lead running back, Noah Cain, is coming back from a season-ending knee injury a year ago. He's averaging just 3.2 yards a carry and could starting ceding some work to Keyvone Lee, who is gaining 6.2 per attempt.
Making matters worse for the prospective rushing attacks is the proficiency with which each defends the run. Iowa yields just 2.65 yards per carry, while Penn State allows only 3.21.
"We're going to need to establish the run," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "We were able to take a step last week with our run game. That's going to be really important. Not just for our offense's success, but also to help our defense out with time of possession.
"This is going to be one of those types of games. We're going to have to grind it out and help our defense out based on who they are as an entire organization, but specifically their offense as well."
TV ANNOUNCERS: Gus Johnson, Joel Klatt and Jenny Taft on FOX.
SERIES: Saturday will be the 31st meeting between Iowa and Penn State. Iowa defeated Penn State, 41-21, in State College in the last meeting.
It was Iowa’s largest margin of victory in the series. The Nittany Lions won five straight prior to last year’s meeting.
The Nittany Lions hold a 17-13 advantage in the series. Penn State leads the series, 11-10, since 1993 when the Nittany Lions joined the Big Ten Conference.
Iowa is 5-10 all-time in games played against Penn State in Iowa City.
BETTING LINES: The game opened with Iowa as a 1.5-point favorite at Vegas Insiders (VI) on Sunday. That number rose to the Hawkeyes -2.5 as of Monday morning. The total was at 41.5, down from a 42.5 open.
-Penn State is 6-0 Against The Spread (ATS) in its last 6 conference games.
-Nittany Lions are 8-1 ATS in their last 9 games overall.
-Hawkeyes are 4-0 ATS in their last 4 conference games.
-Hawkeyes is 6-1 ATS in its last 7 games overall.
PENN STATE PLAYERS TO WATCH
-Jahan Dotson, WR – Dotson is as good as any receiver the Hawkeyes will face this season. He has 35 catches for 446 yards and six touchdowns. At 5-11, 184 pounds, he runs precise routes and finds holes in the defense even when every opponent tries to take him away. He's also dangerous as a punt returner, having brought back nine for 71 yards so far this season.
–Arnold Ebiketie, DL – The Temple transfer had made a seamless transition from the AAC to the Big Ten. On one of the country's better defenses, he's anchored the line with 3.0 sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and four quarterback hurries.
-Joey Porter Jr., LB – The son of former Pittsburgh Steelers star linebacker is making a name for himself as a lockdown corner. At 6-2, 192, he excels in coverage and run support. He has 21 tackles, an interception, 2 pass breakups and a forced fumble so far this season.
KEYS TO VICTORY
Penn State: Iowa is turning turnovers into victories. If the Nittany Lions give away the ball and play otherwise sloppy football, they will leave town with their first loss of the season.
Iowa: PSU presents the toughest challenge for the Hawkeyes from a defensive standpoint. Iowa will find rushing yards to be scarce and needs to hit some pass plays to loosen up the Lions.
-Saturday's game will be the 11th game in PSU program history with both teams ranked among the Top Five of the AP Poll and the Nittany Lions' first since 1999, when No. 3 Penn State earned a 41-7 win over No. 4 Arizona. It's also Penn State's first Top Five matchup against a Big Ten opponent since 1997 vs. Michigan (No. 2 Penn State vs. No. 4 Michigan).
-Penn State ranks second in the nation and leads the Big Ten allowing a 53.3 conversion rate in the red zone.
-Penn State is 4-6 all-time in matchups where both teams are ranked in the Top 5 of the AP Poll. Penn State is 17-54-1 all-time against Top 5 teams, including a 15-49 record in regular season matchups.
-When ranked among the Top 5, Penn State has an all-time record of 101-22-1.
-Dating back to the second half of the season-opener at Wisconsin, Penn State has scored in 18 consecutive quarters.
-The Hawkeyes are ranked No. 3 in the AP and Coaches polls, their highest ranking since Nov. 22, 2015 (#3). Iowa has two wins over ranked opponents (vs. #17 Indiana, 34-6; at #9 Iowa State, 27-17) this season and has won five straight against ranked opponents overall. Only Alabama (9) has more consecutive wins over ranked opponents.
-Iowa and Penn State are meeting for the sixth time as ranked opponents, the third time in the last four years. The top five matchup is the sixth top-five matchup in Iowa football history, and the first at Kinnick Stadium since No. 1 Iowa defeated No. 2 Michigan, 12-10, in 1985.
-Iowa has won eight straight games against Big Ten opponents (2020-21) for the fourth time in program history. Iowa won 10 straight from 2001-02, eight straight from 2008-09 and eight straight in 2015.
-Iowa leads the country with 12 interceptions. The Hawkeyes have 76 interception since 2017, more than any team in the country. Six different Hawkeyes intercepted a pass in Iowa’s 51-14 win at Maryland, tying a school record for most players with an interception in a single game (vs. Wisconsin, 1982). The six interceptions are the most in a game since Iowa had a school-record seven interceptions vs. Wisconsin in 1982.
-Iowa kicker Caleb Shudak has connected on 8-of-9 field goal attempts and is good on all 20 PAT tries. His only miss was the result of a bad snap. He connected on career highs in field goals (3) and extra points (6) in Iowa’s win at Maryland. He has a team-high 44 points, tied for eighth in the Big Ten. Shudak has 18 touchbacks on 31 kickoffs.
Penn State – Nathan Cook
Iowa - Candace Hilligoss
HOWE I SEE IT: Each week, we ask ourselves - Can Iowa's defense keep turning over opponents? Each week, it does.
So, can it do it again against a Top 5 foe? At this point, why bet against it?
It's not luck. No one is that lucky. It's preparation and maximizing talent.
Penn State presents a unique challenge. If the Nittany Lions' defense isn't Iowa's equal, it's damn near as close as it gets. They both feature good specialists.
Both teams trot out inconsistent offenses that appear to be improving. The difference might be which one can cash in on a few key plays.
I think these teams are very similar and comparable. I think Kinnick Stadium is the difference. The environment will be electric.
PREDICTION: IOWA 20, Penn State 16.
Rob Howe is in his 25th year covering University of Iowa Athletics. He's worked for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, Hawkeye Nation, Hawk Fanatic, Hawkeye Insider and more. Please follow @RobHoweHN on Twitter.