Hawkeye fans sense there is something not quite copacetic about the upcoming game with the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday night in Kinnick Stadium before a sellout crowd.
The truth is that being favored over the Lions just does not seem to sit well with the Iowa faithful. It makes fans a bit uneasy. Being the underdog for all these years seemed to suit the team better—giving them something to strive for.
That is not to say that Iowa fans do not appreciate how hard the Hawkeyes have worked to make into the upper echelons of college football—but as fans, we grew used to being the perennial underdogs to the Big Boys in the Big Ten.
Maybe, like the media, we always hesitate to give the Iowa football team the nod, that ultimate vote of confidence—expecting them to suffer that giant step back instead of marching forward into the winner's circle.
Saturday’s game should prove something once and for all because Iowa has practically owned Penn State since the year 2000, losing only once to the Nittany Lions. What has made the difference on many occasions as the game came down to the wire, has been the play of the Iowa special teams.
As they are in any football game, special teams will be important in this contest,—because when the clock ticks down in the fourth quarter, it is special teams and their turnovers pro and con that can make the difference. This has been especially true in Iowa's recent victories over Penn State.
Last year the turning point in Iowa’s contest against Penn State occurred when Adrian Clayborn blocked a punt in the fourth quarter, returning it for a touchdown. Iowa won that contest 21-10 energized by that score.
Such an unexpected adrenalin burst can pump up or deflate a team immediately, depending on which side of the ball you find yourself.
Clayborn’s score had the effect of invigorating the Hawkeyes, instilling a firm belief that they were winners—while having the opposite effect upon Paterno’s squad who could sense their season slipping away at the end of Clayborn’s run.
So what can we determine about special teams for these two ranked teams as they head into Saturday’s contest? There are the usual stats—Iowa’s kick return average is 23.8 yards while Penn State’s is 29.
Iowa’s punt return average is 14.3—Penn State’s is 8.1. Iowa’s interception return average is 3.4 yards and Penn State’s is 10.
Iowa’s is averaging 42.8 yards per punt with a net punt average of 40.7 yards. Penn State’s average per punt is 41 with a net of 40.5. Iowa’s kickoff yards average 65.8 yards while Penn State sits at 65.1 yards.
Iowa had one interception returned for 85 yards by the Arizona Wildcats while Penn State had one fumble returned 89 yards by the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Iowa was called for 20 penalties for 176 yards, averaging 44 per game while Penn State has 11 for 70 yards averaging 17.5 yards. They have each lost three fumbles. Iowa has had one blocked punt and one blocked PAT. Not much in these figures stands out to differentiate between the two squads.
Yet, there is a difference. Joe Paterno came into the 2010 season with a definite plan to overhaul his special team units after realizing that this area of Penn State football may have cost him a couple of wins in 2009—against Iowa and against Ohio State.
Paterno bolstered his punt coverage units. To date their punter, Anthony Fera, has not been blocked nor has any opposing punt returner gained more than a step or two since the Lions are allowing just three yards per return.
By the same token, the Penn State coaching staff is placing emphasis on punt and kickoff returns by injecting some speed into the return game.
But as we look at the stats, concluding that there isn’t much difference between the two teams—one key ingredient in special team play stands out—in fact screams out a warning—in Iowa’s contest against the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday. It is Iowa’s untested place-kicking game.
In 2008, Iowa defeated Penn State by one point on the toe of kicker Daniel Murray with one second left on the clock. In 2004, the only points Iowa put of the board in this low-scoring defensive struggle came from kicker Kyle Schlicher who punched two through the uprights to defeat the Nittany Lions 6-4.
In 2000, Iowa’s Nate Kaeding added four field goals with the last one in the second overtime to defeat Penn State 26-23.
Excellent kicking has been an Iowa trademark any time the Hawkeyes narrowly defeated Penn State. This gives one pause as you consider that Iowa has attempted only two field goals all season, making one.
Those three points came off the toe of Mike Meyer, a true freshman walk-on for the Iowa Hawkeyes. Meyer has been handling kick off duties but attempted his first field goal against Ball State.
Daniel Murray of 2008 fame, has not played yet in 2010, and the coaching staff was a little disappointed in the effort of Trent Mossbrucker who had a PAT blocked against Arizona.
Meyer was given the nod against Ball State to see what he could do under fire. Although he missed on his first attempt—a 37-yarder wide left—he converted on his second, making a 25-yard attempt.
Contrast that to Penn State’s efforts from the foot of Collin Wagner who is tied for first in the nation in field goal kicking percentages, connecting on 10 of 12 for the season.
In fact, in the Lions victory over the Temple Owls, Wagner kicked five field goals, tying a school record. They were from 45, 32, 42, 32, and 21 yards—adding 15 much needed points in the victory over a tough Temple opponent.
On a day when defense might be the order of the day, the ability to get close enough to kick a field goal might very well be the difference between winning and losing this contest. Wagner is a proven commodity while Meyer has many miles to log before he equals his counterpart on the Penn State sidelines.
In the underdog role, if Penn State can keep it close, the Wagner toe might very well prove to the Hawkeyes’ Achilles heel.