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Nittany Lions, Hawkeyes meet in key Big Ten clash

Complimentary football.

It’s a phrase you hear a lot during the course of a season, and although it’s often talked about, not many team are able to achieve it. This week, however, both Penn State and its opponent in the Iowa Hawkeyes (4 p.m. ET, FOX) have been able to play really good complimentary football - maybe the two best teams in the country at doing so.

Protecting the football and generating turnovers has been the name of the game for the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes this season. Penn State is (+6) in the turnover department, which ranks 12th in the country, while Iowa is (+12), which is tops in all of the FBS. Six interceptions against Maryland a week ago in a 51-14 throttling of the Terrapins helped bolster that mark.

There’s no denying the College Football Playoff implications in this one with two top five teams facing off. Today’s game will be the 11th game in 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).

Defense has been dominating the national attention around this game as Penn State and Iowa feature two of the top three scoring defenses in the nation. The Nittany Lions rank third in the country, allowing 12.0 points per game. Iowa sits second in the country, giving up 11.6 points per game. Penn State’s defense continued to be impressive last week, pitching a shutout against Indiana – a team that hasn’t been shut out since the year 2000, 246 games ago. It marked Penn State’s sixth shutout since 2014 and its fourth against a Big Ten opponent. The Nittany Lions earned its first shutout against a Big Ten opponent since 2019 at Maryland and its first home Big Ten shutout since 2015 vs. Illinois.

I like the Penn State defense this week and I think they match up well against Iowa. The Hawkeyes have been given very good field position on the season, because of their defenses ability to force turnovers. The Iowa offense has yet to really explode and it ranks dead last in the Big Ten and 118th in the country in total yards, averaging 320 total yards per game. Something that I think that is also flying under the radar is the Hawkeyes efficiency in the red zone. Iowa ranks 70th in the country in red zone scoring efficiency, scoring six field goals and 10 touchdowns in 16 red zone trips.

The Nittany Lions defense has been special in the red zone this season as they rank second in the nation and lead the Big Ten allowing a 53.3 conversion rate. Penn State held Indiana without a score in both of the Hoosiers’ trips into the red zone. In the first quarter, the Nittany Lions stopped Indiana on fourth-and-one from the Penn State 4 yard-line. In the third quarter, Penn State blocked a 30-yard field goal attempt. Opponents have been held without a score in 7-of-15 trips into the red zone this season.

On the offensive side of the ball, it will be all about taking care of the football for the Nittany Lions. Quarterback Sean Clifford has done a much better job of taking care of the football this season as he’s thrown for 11 touchdowns and just three interceptions. That’s something Clifford will continue to do later today as the Hawkeyes have some legitimate ball hawks in the secondary as they lead the nation with 12 interceptions. One would think Clifford and wide receiver Jahan Dotson might be considered the most important players in the game offensively for Penn State, but instead I think it will be running back Keyvone Lee and tight end Theo Johnson.

It will be very tough for Penn State to just drop back and throw without a run game against this Iowa defense. The Nittany Lions will need to put together a solid running game in order to keep the Hawkeyes off balance and I think Lee is their best bet. Lee looks quick, decisive and runs with power and I think Penn State needs to commit to him early. Johnson will also be important in this one. Clifford will need to work in his tight ends because the Iowa defense does a nice job of covering receivers and not letting them get behind its defense. Clifford has been doing a great job this season of escaping pressure and keeping his eyes downfield, putting the defense in conflict. He will need to once again be exceptional in that area.

Kinnick surely will be rocking this afternoon and I think this game is going to come down to the wire. Iowa has been very good all season and it doesn’t make many mistakes, but I just think Penn State has better athletes at key positions. If the Nittany Lions take care of the football, I think their defense will win the matchup against the Hawkeyes offense.

My pick is Penn State 24, Iowa 20.