Just when it seemed as if the Iowa football team was a lost cause, it traveled to East Lansing and pulled out an impressive double-overtime victory over the Michigan State Spartans.
The Spartans, which began the year in the top 25, may not have been all they were cracked up to be, but they were still a quality opponent and one of the best defenses in the country.
This week, another seemingly lost cause—the Penn State Nittany Lions—travel to Iowa City.
The Nits are, perhaps, the biggest surprise in an already surprising Big Ten.
After getting hit with sanctions that included, among other things, a four-year bowl ban (per ESPN), PSU experienced a mass exodus of transfers (via CBS Sports). Following the transfers, most wrote Penn State off, but the Nits have battled back and have looked impressive in winning the last four games.
In effect, both teams will have a lot to prove in this showdown of the the league's newest coach and its most-tenured head man.
Head Coach: Bill O'Brien (first year as head coach)
Last Game: 39-28 win over Northwestern. PSU had a bye last week.
2012 Record: 4-2 (2-0 in conference)
Previous Opponents: Ohio (L), at Virginia (L), Navy (W), Temple (W), at Illinois (W), Northwestern (W)
2012 Season, So Far, in 20 Words or Less: Disgrace, mass transfers, some fans playing martyr role but Bill O'Brien has done a tremendous job, especially with the quarterback.
Penn State Record, Last Five Years: 2011, 9-4; 2010, 7-6; 2009, 11-2; 2008, 11-2; 2007, 9-4
2012 Scoring Offense: 27.0 points per game (seventh in the Big Ten)
2012 Scoring Defense: 16.0 points per game (second in the Big Ten)
Returning Starters (post-transfers): Two on offense and five on defense
Offensive Scheme: Multiple
Defensive Scheme: 4-3
Iowa's All-Time Record vs. Nittany Lions: 12-12
Last Five Meetings vs. Iowa: 2011, 13-3; 2010, 3-24; 2009, 10-21; 2008, 23-24; 2007, 27-7
Key Injuries: DE Pete Massaro, questionable
Ferentz has had Penn State's number, having posted an 8-3 record against the Nits. However, that was under Paterno.
Much of the reason Ferentz was so successful against the former regime is because both Ferentz and Paterno were cut from the same cloth—execution, assignment-based, focus-on-fundamentals, defense-first, etc.
Over the last 10 years, Ferentz simply out-Paternoed Paterno.
O'Brien is not cut from that cloth.
Coaches who are schemers often have the advantage over Ferentz—see Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald for evidence of that.
This matchup will have a decidedly different dynamic than in the Iowa-Penn State matchups of recent years.
Iowa fans breathed a sigh of relief when Kirk Ferentz announced (via Randy Peterson of the Des Moines Register) that top Hawkeye running back Mark Weisman has been medically cleared to play on Saturday.
The issue is that cleared or not, he does have a sprained ankle, and as Ferentz commented, "it’s tough for a guy to just go out and play running back with a (sprained) ankle."
In effect, Hawkeye fans won't know whether Weisman will be in the game until the Iowa offense takes the field.
If he doesn't play, the bulk of the carries will go to true freshman Greg Garmon and true sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who is barely six months removed from a torn ACL.
Garmon was a high-profile recruit (Rivals' No. 19 running back in the country), but his inexperience has been evident in limited playing time.
In 14 carries, Garmon has averaged 2.50 yards per carry (YPC). Iowa's other top rushers have averaged a combined 5.52 YPC running behind the same offensive line.
As for Canzeri, he is undoubtedly rusty.
Whoever suits up will face the second-best group of linebackers the Hawkeyes will see this year in seniors Mike Mauti and Gerald Hodges along with junior Glenn Carson. Backup sophomore Mike Hull is dangerous as well.
It's disheartening when a fifth-year senior quarterback has the worst performance of his career in his 21st collegiate start.
Yet, that's what happened in Vanderberg's performance against Michigan State.
In some fairness, MSU is the best defense JVB and the Iowa offense will face all season, but that still doesn't excuse Vandenberg's happy feet, rushed throws, inaccuracy and poor decision-making.
At this point, it's hard to imagine what offensive coordinator (OC) Greg Davis can do to settle Vandenberg down. Unlike former OC Ken O'Keefe, Davis has adjusted his play-calling to try and help JVB, but it hasn't done anything.
If Vandenberg is to right the ship, it will have to come from within.
Let's hope a return to Kinnick will restore his confidence a little.
Otherwise, it's hard to see Iowa having much success scoring points, especially if Mark Weisman is out.
It's hard to believe Matt McGloin can aptly be called a "precision quarterback," but with a completion percentage of 61.5—65.2 in his last four games—that is what McGloin is under Bill O'Brien.
The good news is Iowa will likely field the best defense McGloin has seen, so far, this year.
The problem is precision quarterbacks were the thorn in the side of former defensive coordinator (DC) Norm Parker's D.
New DC Phil Parker has yet to face a precision quarterback. How will he adjust?
Something that went under the radar in Iowa's win over MSU was that outside of one ill-advised block in the back on a would-be kickoff return that went for a touchdown, Iowa was nearly flawless on special teams.
When was the last time the Hawks could say that?
Meanwhile, PSU has issues.
Currently, the Nits are last in the conference and tied for 120th in the country, having made only 33.3 percent of their nine field-goal attempts. They have also missed two extra points.
Penn State is also last in the conference in punting average, ninth in kickoff returns, ninth in punt returns and 11th in defending opponents' punt returns.
There are some positives, such as first in defending opponents' kickoff returns and second in defending opponents' field goals.
Nevertheless, if the game comes down to special teams and field goals, Iowa looks to be at a decided advantage.
Penn State has converted 70.37 percent of its red-zone opportunities, which is 11th in the conference.
Iowa has converted a respectable 90.48 percent of its chances in the red zone but has only turned 42.86 percent of those opportunities into touchdowns. That latter number is last in the Big Ten and 113th in the country.
Given the Nits' aforementioned issues with place kicking, Iowa is at a decided advantage in a kicking battle, but the Hawks will have to score more than field goals to win.
According to Phil Steele, Penn State's offensive line came into the season the least experienced in the Big Ten and one of the least experienced in nation.
It hasn't been great, but it has been much better than expected. The quick-pass nature of the offense lends itself to less pressure on line. Also, it is a testament to O'Brien's coaching, as Paterno's offensive lines underachieved for much of the last decade.
The Iowa defensive line is in much the same situation as the Penn State offensive line. It came into the year inexperienced and undersized but has also been much better than expected.
Those numbers aren't necessarily reflected in stats—Iowa is ninth in the conference in sacks and eighth in tackles-for-loss—but the line has been disruptive, played assignment football, and over last two games, has established a pass rush without the help of blitz.
Even more notably, defensive end Joe Gaglione and defensive tackle Louis Trinca-Pasat have come out of nowhere and are establishing themselves as individual game-changers.
Iowa and Penn State are tied for first in the Big Ten and 15th in the country in turnover margin.
Both teams have gained an extra 1.17 possessions per game via turnovers.
For all of James Vandenberg's struggles, he has done an outstanding job of taking care of the ball, as the Hawkeyes have the second-fewest giveaways in the Big Ten.
Meanwhile, Penn State has the third-fewest giveaways and the fourth-most takeaways.
Both PSU and Iowa are borderline teams that will win or lose games due to a couple of plays. This year, those plays have often been turnovers.
The winner in this area will win the game.
Penn State boasts the second-best front four Iowa will see this year. The Hawkeyes did well against the best front four, and more specifically, best front seven it has seen this year (MSU).
The line allowed only one sack, despite merciless blitzing, and it the paved way for 3.6 YPC, despite absence of passing game—and this was on the road.
A key difference is that MSU had a better secondary than Penn State. In effect, it will not only be up to the line to establish dominance, but it will be up to the passing game to help the line out.
Much has been made about the job Bill O'Brien has done and deservedly so. He has overseen a PSU team that is out of the bowl hunt, out of the conference-championship hunt, has seen mass transfers and public disgrace and has nothing to play for but itself.
Despite this, the team has improved and even flourished to some degree.
Meanwhile, Iowa has its own new hires who have made a mark.
New offensive line coach Brian Ferentz and new linebacker coach LeVar Woods are, perhaps, not coincidentally, the position coaches of the Hawks' two best position groups this year.
Moreover, after two years of underachieving lines under former Hawkeye and current Nebraska D-line coach Rick Kaczenski (enjoy that hire, Husker fans), Reese Morgan has taken his young defensive line and has them overachieving.
Finally, when is the last time you've seen the kind of energy and enthusiasm coming from the Iowa sidelines, as is evident in the adjoining video. This team is having fun.
If you think the young coaches don't have something to do with that, then think again.
1. Keep PSU out of the end zone.
The Penn State offense is built to move the ball between the 20s. Iowa has to stiffen up in the red zone and force the weak Nittany Lion kicking game to try to kick field goals
2. Win the special teams battle.
The Iowa offense, and specifically the passing game, has issues. It needs to be put in a position to succeed.
3. Establish some sort of passing game.
If the Hawks can do that, the offense will be dominant, not only in this game but going forward.
4. Do not turn the ball over.
PSU and Iowa have thrived on turnovers. The winner of this game will win the turnover battle.
5. Make clean tackles after the catch.
Penn State will nickel and dime its way down the field. Iowa has to make sure the Nits earn every yard.