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Penn State Looks Like the Team You’ve Been Waiting to See in Win Over Iowa

Penn State had been waiting for this performance. Intentional offensive efficiency and terrorizing defense. A game when everything clicks and you start to see the kind of team the Nittany Lions might become.

If Penn State’s win over Illinois a week ago left behind a lukewarm aftertaste of “good enough, I guess” then Saturday’s 31-0 victory over Iowa was a far more well-cooked meal. It was balanced in its flavor, well-crafted in its execution and presentation. Illinois was leftovers; Iowa was something to sink your teeth into. In fact, it was so one-sided that it’s almost completely forgotten that Iowa entered the game just inside the Top 25 at No. 24.

Defensively, even in the light of Iowa’s injured offense, which even on a good day can be described wholeheartedly as Not Great, the Nittany Lions looked like what everyone has been waiting to see. This was a group no longer playing with its food, but rather a cohesive unit not interested in giving Iowa the benefit of missed gap assignments or momentum. The Hawkeyes were held to 76 yards of offense, and it was well under 60 until some garbage time gains. For a good long while Iowa had just two first downs, a number that would have tied Penn State’s single-game defensive record if not for two late first downs in the fourth quarter. Four turnovers and a single third-down conversion did little to help the Hawkeyes either.

“When you get people off schedule on first and second down and do a great job of defending the run, then you put yourself in a position to earn the right to rush the passer by how you defend the run,” Penn State coach James Franklin said after the game. “So, some real positives to build on. But it really starts with playing great run defense on early downs to give yourself the havoc rate in terms of sacks, tackles for loss and turnovers.”

All told, in a week full of statement games across college football, Penn State’s may not have rang the loudest, but among those keeping an eye on the early stages of the Nittany Lions’ season, the Nittany Lions’ defense finally made its grand entrance. No matter how dysfunctional Iowa might be on the offensive side of the ball, the Nittany Lions left little doubt in their competency and reassured those slowly raising a red flag that in fact there is no danger.

For its part Penn State’s offense played the part of a boxer simply jabbing away, waiting for the opportunity to land a few knockout blows. The Nittany Lions still have some questions in need of answering and some problems to resolve in the coming weeks, but they have mastered the early season art of grinding it out. Penn State had scoring drives of 7:28, 6:40 and 5:50 while racking up over 45 minutes of possession. This was an offense which ran the ball 57 times for 215 yards and eventually turned first half 4-5 yard gains into second half spurts of 6-to-8 yards. In fact, Penn State’s rushing average effectively doubled going from 2.5 yards per carry in the first half to 4.8 in the second half.

“I think we got a pretty good idea of what they did well,” Franklin added. “And I thought [offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich] did a really good job of calling and not getting bored against an Iowa defense who is damn good and not get bored of the plays that were consistently getting us five to six yards and coming back to them. Don’t get bored with them. Keep coming back to them until they prove that they can stop it.”

Meanwhile, Drew Allar quietly passed for four touchdowns, bouncing back from a mundane performance against Illinois in a 25-for-37 effort that took what Iowa offered and not much more. Each of his touchdown passes came with the sort of power and precision that turned him into the quarterback prospect that makes scouts drool. On the other end of one of those touchdowns was an ever-growing KeAndre Lambert-Smith, the redzone weaponry of tight end Tyler Warren and the depth receiver of the week, tight end Khalil Dinkins.

It’s impossible to talk about anything related to Iowa football and not embrace the Hawkeyes historically bad offense and sound – but predictable – defensive approach. Iowa is very much Iowa, the sort of thing that either lends itself to unexpectedly close games or the kind of bludgeoning that Penn State participated in on Saturday (though the Hawkeyes had not been shut out since 2000).

Nevertheless, there is something to be said for doing what should be done. If Penn State is going to make something of this growing win total, it will do so by getting increasingly good at making a meal out of the teams that it should. Saturday night was a step in that direction and a more emphatic one than the convincing-but-not-sexy win it had over Illinois the week prior. For now, that menu immediately includes Northwestern next weekend and UMass the following before the Nittany Lions look to finally come out of an off week and not lose a step. A date with Ohio State on the other side of that break should offer little reason for Penn State to hit a lull, but the Nittany Lions’ have not always benefited from the off week. A story for another day.

When it’s all said and done, Penn State’s win over Iowa could have very reasonably been at the hands of a rainy slog, but the Nittany Lions instead opted for a second half full of methodical offensive knockout blows as the defense spent the entire game teeing off on a weaponless offense. The next few weeks may not pose the same challenge as Iowa potentially could have, but given the opportunity to reassure everyone that the team they were hoping to see was there to be had, Penn State did just that. And there’s a victory in that for James Franklin too.