Last month, No. 22 Penn State's contest with defending national champion and current No. 1-ranked Alabama was the hot ticket. Warm feelings were everywhere leading up to the game, from reminiscences about Penn State coach Joe Paterno's classic matchups with Alabama's Bear Bryant in the 1970s and 1980s to a pregame meeting at midfield between Paterno, former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden, and current Alabama skipper Nick Saban, owners of a combined six national championships. ESPN's College GameDay brought its act to Tuscaloosa, and the gametime temperature was a sultry 88 degrees.
Penn State's trip to face No. 18 Iowa on Saturday night will be considerably cooler, literally and figuratively. The gametime temperature in Iowa City could dip into the 30s, and the game will be broadcast opposite two matchups pitting top-10 teams against each other: No. 9 Stanford at No. 4 Oregon and No. 7 Florida at Alabama. There will be no nostalgic photo-ops or fond remembrances. Just Big Ten play.
Despite the contrast in hype, though, make no mistake: this is Penn State's biggest game of the season. The Hawkeyes have devastated the Nittany Lions in recent years. There was Iowa's 24-23 upset of No. 3 Penn State in 2008 that ended any hope the Nitts had of a national championship, followed by 2009's 21-10 beatdown in the soup at Beaver Stadium. The Lions head back to Kinnick Stadium with conference championship hopes still alive and, though they'd never say so, vengeance on their minds. But what is it going to take to beat the Hawkeyes in their house?
1. Solid special teams. The Lions were doomed against the Hawks in 2009 when Adrian Clayborn blocked a Jeremy Boone punt and returned it for a touchdown that staked Iowa to a lead it wouldn't relinquish, but Penn State has looked much better on special teams so far this season. Kicker/punter Anthony Fera has been notching touchbacks on kickoffs with regularity, kicker Collin Wagner is coming off a 5-for-6 field goal performance against Temple last week, and the Lions' kickoff return unit is ranked in the top ten nationally. Avoiding the big mistake this year and taking control of the field position battle will be important in any upset bid.
2. Tackling. Iowa's Adam Robinson is no Trent Richardson, but the Hawkeye running back has gone over 100 yards in three of the first four games this season. Penn State needs to get him on the ground with first contact and not let him pick up extra ground by shaking Lion defenders, as Richardson and even Temple's Bernard Pierce managed to. Iowa will be tough running the football, but managing its gains will be key for Penn State.
3. Win the turnover battle. The cliche is painfully true for the Lions when they play Iowa. In 2008, a late Daryll Clark interception set up Daniel Murray's game-winning field goal, and in 2009, turnovers by Clark and Evan Royster killed several of the Lions' best chances at winning. Of course, winning the turnover battle means playing a clean game on offense, but it also means pressuring Ricky Stanzi and forcing uncharacteristic Iowa mistakes. Safety Nick Sukay stepped up last week with two interceptions against Temple, and Penn State's veteran secondary has played well the past couple of weeks. If it can set up quarterback Robert Bolden and the offense with some short fields, that will help Penn State immensely.
4. Improve in the red zone. Penn State outgained Temple last week by nearly a two-to-one margin but came away six times with only field goal attempts. Finishing drives this week against a tough Iowa defense is critical. Look for Penn State to try and get freshmen tight ends Garry Gilliam and Kevin Haplea involved in the middle of the field to free up Derek Moye and the wide receivers on the outside. They might not be Mickey Shuler and Andrew Quarless, but if the young tight ends can contribute on offense this week, it'll give Penn State more options as they get closer to the end zone.
5. Run the ball / Get the extra yard. Early in the season, running back Evan Royster was slow in the hole, vulnerable to first contact, and clumsy on his feet. He looked like a much more decisive runner against Temple, though, and that needs to continue against Iowa. Considering how tough the Hawks are up front, it's probably unreasonable to expect a whole lot from Royster statistically, but if he makes the most of his carries, and gets that extra yard or two, it'll put his young quarterback in more makeable third down situations and lessen some of the pressure on a freshman making his first Big Ten start on the road.