Penn State had established itself as a national title contender when it carried an unbeaten record into its meeting with Iowa late last season, but it’s been more difficult to get a read on coach Joe Paterno’s unblemished yet untested team in 2009.
The Nittany Lions’ motivation, however, will be hard to miss.
A loss to the Hawkeyes spoiled Penn State’s otherwise perfect regular season in 2008, and the fifth-ranked Nittany Lions will have revenge on their minds Saturday night in front of a frenzied Beaver Stadium crowd.
Penn State (3-0) was among the Big Ten’s preseason favorites after claiming its second conference championship in four years last fall, but Paterno’s team saw its national championship dreams end on a windy afternoon in Iowa City.
The Nittany Lions came in 9-0 and ranked third in the nation on Nov. 8, but couldn’t hold on to a nine-point lead in the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium. All-conference quarterback Daryll Clark threw for 86 yards and a late interception in his worst game of the season, and Iowa emerged with a 24-23 win after Daniel Murray kicked a 31-yard field goal with a second left.
Iowa (3-0) hasn’t lost since, winning seven straight by nearly 18.0 points per game. Awaiting the Hawkeyes’ return trip to State College, though, will be a stadium-wide “Whiteout” among the 110,000 fans at Beaver Stadium.
“I don’t know what revenge has got to do with it in football,” Paterno said. “It’s not like they sneaked up on us and stuck us in the back with a knife or something. They played a good football game and they beat us.”
Iowa defensive tackle Karl Klug, however, figures Penn State may be interested in some payback, particularly considering the Nittany Lions have lost six of their last seven to the Hawkeyes.
“Oh yeah, they are going to (want) some revenge on us,” Klug said. “We are going to have to bring our ‘A’ game.”
Clark bounced back by throwing for an average of 284.7 yards in the Nittany Lions’ final three games - including a 38-24 Rose Bowl loss to Southern California - and tossing eight touchdown passes and three interceptions.
He’s matched those totals exactly in Penn State’s three non-conference wins to open 2009 while throwing for 253.3 yards.
After Clark carried the offense in wins over Akron and Syracuse, the Nittany Lions got their running game going Saturday against Temple. Clark threw for 167 yards and a score, but Evan Royster’s 134 yards led an improved rushing effort in Penn State’s 31-6 win.
“I just think we were a little tougher across the line of scrimmage,” Paterno said. “… We played with a little more bounce.”
The Nittany Lions have outscored their three opponents 90-20, though Akron, Syracuse and Temple are a combined 2-6. Perhaps of more concern than their easy schedule or an inexperienced offensive line, however, is the health of their two star linebackers.
Sean Lee missed the entire 2008 season with a right knee injury, but was named the Big Ten’s defensive player of the week after recording 12 tackles and a sack against the Owls. But Lee left in the second half with a sprained left knee and is doubtful for this game.
Navorro Bowman, who tied a team high with eight tackles and recovered a fumble in the loss to the Hawkeyes a year ago, hasn’t played since the opener due to a groin injury. Bowman returned to practice Tuesday and will play this week.
Sophomore Nathan Stupar, who had been filling in admirably for Bowman, may not be available after spraining an ankle this week.
Iowa, on the other hand, is banged up on offense. Left tackle Bryan Bulaga missed the past two games with an undisclosed ailment, while tight end Tony Moeaki (sprained ankle) and receiver Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (hamstring) have also been left off coach Kirk Ferentz’s depth chart.
Johnson-Koulianos’ absence could be critical, as he had seven catches for 89 yards and a touchdown in Iowa’s upset of Penn State last season. Quarterback Ricky Stanzi, however, has found some other weapons.
Both senior Trey Stross and sophomore Marvin McNutt are averaging more than 15 yards per catch, but perhaps the most significant development for Iowa has been finding a running game. With Shonn Greene gone to the NFL and sophomore Jewel Hampton out for the season with a knee injury, the Hawkeyes struggled to run the ball in an ugly 17-16 season-opening win over Northern Iowa.
Freshman Brandon Wegher gained 101 yards in a 35-3 victory at Iowa State on Sept. 12, though, and redshirt freshman Adam Robinson equaled that last Saturday - also scoring twice - in a 27-17 win over Arizona.
“We have two guys that really haven’t played very much, and I think probably what we saw with Adam today, he’s benefiting from the experience a little bit,” Ferentz said. “He’s gaining ground (on Brandon) right now.”
Penn State’s 27-7 home win over Iowa on Oct. 6, 2007, snapped a four-game losing streak against the Hawkeyes at Beaver Stadium.
The Nittany Lions have won 24 straight home games against unranked opponents by an average of 26.4 points.