With a season that may hinge as much on results from Texas and Tuscaloosa as the three games left on its own schedule, Penn State has had two weeks to gear up for a month of debate regarding its rightful place in the national championship picture.
Taking care of its own business remains the first order.
The third-ranked Nittany Lions will try to close their Big Ten road slate on a high note Saturday when they travel to Iowa for the first time since 2003.
Penn State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) was third in the initial BCS standings that were released on Oct. 19. The Lions stayed there after their 13-6 victory at Ohio State on Oct. 25, the biggest win on a resume they’re hoping is good enough to earn them one of two spots in the BCS championship game.
Joe Paterno’s team had a week off after that victory, and despite top-ranked Texas falling to then-sixth ranked Texas Tech last Saturday, the Red Raiders vaulted Penn State to No. 2 in the BCS. With its three remaining games the only thing his team can control, Paterno isn’t worried about looking ahead.
“I haven’t got the slightest idea what the BCS … is it the BCS or the BSC? I don’t know,” he said. “They are going to do what they are going to do and it won’t make any difference what I say or comment on.”
Paterno, still hobbled by a hip injury that has forced him to watch the past five games from the press box, hasn’t hesitated to pass that message along to his players.
“We still got three weeks to go,” safety Anthony Scirrotto said about heeding Paterno’s advice. “All we got to do is stay focused on who we play this week.”
First up for the Nittany Lions is a trip to Iowa City to face the up-and-down Hawkeyes (5-4, 2-3). Iowa followed up its three consecutive wins to open the season with three straight losses, and then after back-to-back victories, fell 27-24 at Illinois last Saturday on a field goal in the final minute.
Junior tailback Shonn Greene, the nation’s fifth leading rusher, topped 100 yards for the ninth straight game, but his 103 yards on 21 carries were a season low.
Greene will likely find it even more difficult to run against Penn State. The Nittany Lions allow just 2.9 yards per carry, and they held Ohio State star Chris “Beanie” Wells to a 2.5-yard average.
Considering Iowa hasn’t thrown for 200 yards in any of its past four games, coach Kirk Ferentz is certain Penn State will try to limit Greene.
“I know philosophically, a good defense starts with trying to make your opponents play left-handed,” Ferentz said. “I’m sure they’re not going to make it easy for us to run the football. We anticipate that.”
The Lions have a strong rushing attack of their own led by sophomore Evan Royster. On a per-carry basis, Royster is among the best backs in the country. He’s gaining 7.2 yards per touch, tops among all backs in BCS conferences with at least 100 carries.
Like Penn State’s defensive front, which is led by Big Ten sacks leader Aaron Maybin (11.0), Iowa is stout against the run. The Hawkeyes give up 100.7 ypg on the ground, 12th in the country. They limited Michigan State’s Javon Ringer, the nation’s leading rusher, to just 3.6 ypc last month.
With two weeks to prepare for Iowa, perhaps no Nittany Lion player benefited from that time more than quarterback Daryll Clark. The junior suffered a mild concussion during the win at Ohio State - backup Pat Devlin led the Lions’ lone touchdown drive - but Clark appears ready to go Saturday.
Clark and the Penn State offense will likely try to get the ball downfield against an Iowa defense that’s given up at least 250 yards passing in its past two games.
Penn State’s 27-7 win over the Hawkeyes on Oct. 6, 2007 snapped a five-game losing streak in the series. The Lions lost 26-14 in 2003, their last visit to Kinnick Stadium.