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It isn't often that Penn State and Iowa meet with National Championship hopes on the line. But, Saturday's game is as big as they get. College football expert Alex Kirshner gives us his Penn State vs. Iowa predictions

Penn State vs. Iowa Prediction, Over/Under Pick, and Latest Odds

Spread: Iowa -2.5

Total: 42.5

Game time: Saturday, 4 p.m. ET

Where to watch: FOX

Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Iowa Hawkeyes Prediction

Penn State’s visit to Iowa this weekend has morphed into a blockbuster, as the Nittany Lions’ and Hawkeyes’ 5-0 starts have boosted them to Nos. 4 and 3 in the AP Poll, respectively. The Hawkeyes have built on a quietly strong 2020 to become one of the most dominant teams in college football thus far, while Penn State has jumped back from a nightmarish season to reassert itself near the top of the Big Ten East. While Iowa’s defense has been devastating and Lions QB Sean Clifford has played the best football of his career, both of these teams are tricky matchups for the other in different ways. I expect it’ll add up to not a lot of points.

The Hawkeyes thrive on takeaways. Kirk Ferentz’s defense is as structurally sound as ever, which forces opposing offenses to take chances they’d ideally avoid. The result has been that a whopping 20 percent of opposing possessions have ended in turnovers, and Iowa’s 12 interceptions in five games are two clear of any other team in FBS. That’s how Iowa has managed to be 110th in yards per play (4.87) but 44th in points per game (33.2). The average Iowa drive only goes 25 yards, but the defense puts Spencer Petras in such a good position that they get all the points they need anyway. That has worked well against the teams on Iowa’s schedule so far, but I’m less sure it will work well against Penn State. Clifford, a senior, has been steady all year, and the PSU offense has committed just three turnovers in five games.

Without expansive help from the defense, I don’t know how Iowa will score points against Penn State. The Hawkeyes do not move the ball efficiently most of the time, although QB Spencer Petras had a good game last week against a Maryland defense that was in total meltdown mode as its offense kept forcing it to defend short fields. Otherwise, Petras has rarely gotten traction. Penn State’s defense has been downright brutal to recent opposing QBs Graham Mertz, Bo Nix, and Michael Penix Jr., none of whom is great but each of whom is around Petras’ level or better. Petras is fine when kept clean but struggles badly when pressured, and Penn State’s defensive front is mean enough to ensure he feels plenty of heat in this game.

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On the other hand, I don’t see Clifford having much of a day against Iowa’s elite defense. The Hawkeyes generate plenty of pressure without having to blitz all that often, which forces QBs to throw quickly against a glut of coverage players. Iowa’s pass rush is much more serious than anything PSU’s offensive line has seen to date, and the Hawkeyes have two tremendous cornerbacks behind them. Matt Hankins and Riley Moss are both good enough to work against excellent PSU receiver Jahan Dotson and whichever of his friends Clifford targets.

Neither team should run the ball well. Penn State was ineffective on the ground against Auburn and Wisconsin and recently averaged just 3.1 yards per carry at home against an FCS team, Villanova. The only team the Lions have truly gashed on the ground was the MAC’s Ball State in Week 2. It won’t happen against the Hawkeyes. On the same hand, Iowa’s running game was bleak against Indiana, Iowa State, and Colorado State, and Penn State is right up there with ISU as the best run defense Iowa will have faced.

On the whole, I don’t see where the points will come from in this game. That is particularly true given that neither team works at a quick pace. Both average about 67 plays per game, a figure that ranks them in the 70s nationally. They aren’t going to show off much tempo at Kinnick Stadium, and there’s not a single factor that points to this game featuring offense. So I like the under, and on the basis that Penn State has a superior offense and a still-effective defense, I’ll throw in a pick for the Nittany Lions to cover along with it.

Penn State vs. Iowa Betting Picks

Pick: Under 42.5 @ -110

Pick: Penn State +2.5 @ -110

Article Author


Alex Kirshner covers college football for the Moon Crew newsletter. He is a co-author of The Sinful Seven: Sci-Fi Western Legends of the NCAA, and he lives in Washington, D.C.


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