STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — Sean Clifford knows he and the rest of Penn State's offense have a comfortable margin of error given the way the Nittany Lions' defense has been playing.
But Penn State's quarterback doesn't want to lean on dominant defensive efforts like the 10-sack performance that fueled Saturday's 35-7 victory over Purdue. Especially not with a looming trip to No. 17 Iowa, which figures to be No. 10 Penn State's first real test of the season.
"That's not my thought process," Clifford said. "It was good that we jumped out ahead, but it was good that we got punched in the mouth a little bit."
After scoring on their first four possessions against the Boilermakers, the Nittany Lions went cold. Their next seven possessions ended with an interception, missed field goal and five straight punts before they found the end zone again.
"We weren't as clean with our execution," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "It felt like maybe after getting those early points, that maybe we took a deep breath and exhaled, and we don't live like that around here."
But Franklin quickly stressed that his players were as confident as they've been since they set foot on campus. They also know that a similar offensive performance won't be good enough against the Hawkeyes.
Iowa will bring the nation's fifth-ranked defense into the prime-time showdown at Kinnick Stadium. Despite losing 10-3 to then-No. 19 Michigan on Saturday, the Hawkeyes managed to frustrate the Wolverines for much of the afternoon, forcing eight punts on 14 possessions.
They held Michigan to well under its yards-per-game average, allowed the Wolverines to convert just 3 of 13 third downs and held quarterback Shea Patterson to 14-for-26 passing and a quarterback rating of 27.4 with an interception.
While the Nittany Lions have posted gaudy offensive numbers through five games — they're averaging 500 yards and 47 points — a few themes have developed that concern Franklin.
Penn State has been better over its last two games on third downs but is still converting just 41% for the season. Meanwhile, the running game has yet to find any real momentum as offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has used a committee of rushers in the backfield.
"I don't know if we've gotten to the point where someone's consistent in practice and in games that separated themselves from the pack," Franklin said. "So I still think we are going to play four guys."
That hasn't been an issue on the defensive side, where Penn State has rotated a handful of defensive linemen and linebackers with sparkling results.
Penn State's front seven racked up nine of the team's 10 sacks of Purdue quarterback Jack Plummer and 12 Nittany Lion linemen or linebackers have had a hand in at least one sack.
Speed rushers Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney combined for five sacks on Saturday and have 10½ this season. They have been key cogs — along with linebacker Micah Parsons and defensive backs John Reid and Lamont Wade — in Penn State's high-pressure packages on early downs intended to force third-and-longs.
The approach has worked. Penn State's last three opponents are a combined 10 for 45 on third downs, with 32 of them being third-and-long situations.
Those results have encouraged Penn State's defenders, who echoed Franklin's feeling that they are playing championship-level defense. And while Clifford doesn't want to lean on a defense to bail out the offense, the Nittany Lions' defense is happy to provide a security blanket.
"I'm feeling really confident about this team, this organization really from top to bottom," Gross-Matos said. "We're not going to prepare for (Iowa) any differently. I've been there before. It's an incredible environment honestly. I think we're going to be ready for it."
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