Penn State's defensive unit, one that has succeeded against limited competition through three games this season, is in for a different test on Saturday night.
Known for its physicality up front, Iowa also boasts one of the best running backs in the conference in senior Akrum Wadley. Already owning concerns about his team’s ability to defend the run, Penn State head coach James Franklin said on Tuesday that Iowa’s offensive style will provide a real challenge for his squad.
“It's a little bit different,” he said. “You're not facing a team that's a spread team or a [run-pass option] team. They are more of a traditional offense, like a Michigan, like a Michigan State, like a Stanford. Iowa is going to get up and they are going to line up and they are going to try to pound you from multiple personnel groups.”
One of Penn State’s keys to stopping the run will be linebacker Manny Bowen, who has compiled 15 total tackles through three games, including one for a loss.
After helping the Nittany Lion defense limit the Hawkeyes to just 30 yards on the ground in a 41-14 blowout victory last season, Bowen knows what to expect.
“We know what the game plan is,” he said. “It just comes down to everybody being gap accountable, knowing our assignment and making the right plays. When a team like this just keeps trying to hammer the ball, they usually make their explosive plays off of running the same play so many times and somebody missing the gap, and that’s when you’ll see an explosive play happen.”
Along with the added focus on gap discipline, Bowen said he would like to see the Nittany Lions tackle a bit better than they have been through three games.
A sticking point by Penn State's coaching staff in the Lions' first three games, Bowen intends to make the improvement alongside his teammates against an opponent that will require it.
“One thing I definitely need to improve on is finishing plays,” he said. “We’re definitely getting to the ball the first couple games. We have some missed tackles that we want to clean up. As the season goes on, we’ve just got to work on finishing and making those plays.”
Penn State was able to bottle Wadley up in last year’s matchup. The star running back notched just 60 all-purpose yards, with his most explosive contribution coming by way of a 12-yard touchdown reception.
Based on Wadley’s start to the 2017 campaign, though, it will be a challenge for the Nittany Lions to repeat that performance this time around. Wadley tallied over 100 yards on the ground in each of Iowa’s first two games before leaving a game against North Texas early with an ankle injury that is not expected to sideline him for Saturday’s contest.
“He’s a quick guy,” Bowen said of the Hawkeyes’ star. “He has speed. He’s big. He has nice vision. They’re going to be looking for him to find that that hole, make that one cut and go. So we just have to limit him to what give him and just suck the air out of offensive plays and don’t give him the space or room that he’s looking for to make those explosive plays.”