IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — Penn State has beaten its first five opponents by nearly 40 points per game.
The Nittany Lions' next three games may not be quite so easy.
No. 10 Penn State's playoff hopes will likely hinge on how it performs during a brutal stretch that begins Saturday at 17th-ranked Iowa. The Hawkeyes (4-1, 1-1 Big Ten) will be the first Top 25 team the Nittany Lions (5-0, 2-0) face this season, and they'll be followed by a home date with No. 16 Michigan and a trip to Michigan State.
Iowa will also represent the biggest test yet for quarterback Sean Clifford and Penn State's high-flying offense. The Hawkeyes are third nationally in scoring defense at 8.8 points a game, behind only Wisconsin (5.8) and the Nittany Lions (7.4) in coach Kirk Ferentz's 21st season in charge.
"It's amazing. You put the tape on, especially on the defensive side of the ball, it looks the same as it did four years ago," Penn State coach James Franklin said. "I hope that (doesn't) come off the wrong way, because I mean that as the ultimate compliment. They do what they do, and they do it really well."
Iowa's defense was brilliant in last week's 10-3 loss at Michigan, holding the Wolverines to just 267 yards. The Hawkeyes were pitiful on offense as senior quarterback Nate Stanley threw his first three interceptions of the season. Iowa also allowed eight sacks and finished with just one yard rushing.
"The negative yardage plays are always going to affect you," Ferentz said. "Part of that was our lack of execution, maybe part of that's Michigan, being a really athletic, aggressive defensive team. But that being said, we are looking at the same kind of opponent this week."
CLIFFORD VS. IOWA SECONDARY
Clifford, a first-year starter, leads the Big Ten with 288.6 yards a game, and his 16 yards per completion ranks sixth nationally. But Iowa excels at defending the pass. The Hawkeyes are giving up just 5.9 yards per attempt and have as many interceptions, four, as passing touchdowns allowed.
"Looks like he's got a great future, so hopefully we can find a way to slow him down a little bit," Ferentz said of Clifford.
Iowa and Penn State have been known to put on a show. The Nittany Lions won in Iowa City in 2017 on a walk-off touchdown pass from Trace McSorley, and last year Stanley threw a pick at Penn State's goal line with 3:18 left as the Nittany Lions survived 30-24. Iowa has lost five straight in the series, but prior to that the Hawkeyes won eight of nine in the series — including a last-second 24-23 win in 2008 that knocked Penn State out of the national title chase. Iowa's quarterback in that game, Ricky Stanzi, is the team's honorary captain this week.
Franklin is 3-0 against Iowa. ... Hawkeyes freshman Tyler Goodson, who started the season fourth on the depth chart, leads all Big Ten running backs with 14 receptions. ... Neither Penn State nor Iowa has allowed more than 17 points in a game this season. ... In a series that often comes down to the wire, the Hawkeyes are in good hands with kicker Keith Duncan. He's second nationally with 11 field goals and has missed just one all year.
HE SAID IT
"The football that I know and love brings people together and embraces differences. Black, white, brown. Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. Rich or poor. Rural or urban. Republican or Democrat. Long hair, short hair, no hair. They are all in that locker room together." — Franklin in response to a letter defensive back Jonathan Sutherland received from a Penn State fan criticizing his dreadlocks.
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