It’s been two years since Penn State last stepped foot in Kinnick Stadium, however, it feels more like an entirety ago.
While much has changed in the world since the blue and white last entered Iowa City, there’s a lot that’s comparable between the state of the two programs then and now.
In 2019, Penn State’s defense, led by Micah Parsons and Yetur Gross-Matos, quickly defined itself as one of the most dominant defenses in the country over the first five games of the season.
Despite a somewhat easier schedule than the one the Nittany Lions have this season, the blue and white entered Kinnick Stadium in 2019 having allowed only 37 points in five games — just over a touchdown per contest.
Having already faced two ranked opponents and a 2020 conference championship through five games in 2021, Penn State allows only 12 points per game — good for third best in the country.
The second best? Iowa.
It’s hard to believe it, but the Hawkeys were playing even more dominant defense in the early portion of the 2019 season than they are right now, averaging 8.8 points allowed through the first five games of that season.
Leading up to Saturday, James Franklin has made it abundantly clear that a dominant Iowa defense is nothing new.
What is new is Iowa’s dominant offense, specifically in the red zone, which should serve as a challenge for a Penn State defense that has virtually silenced every opponent this season.
Playing in a packed Kinnick Stadium is never an easy feat, but it must help when a good portion of your team has already experienced the environment and gotten a win.
For Penn State, that’s exactly the case and then some.
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Sure, this year’s Nittany Lions are without the same leadership Parsons, Gross-Matos and Cam Brown brought to the middle and interior Penn State defense in 2019.
However, a good number of the young players who made an impact in the blue and white’s 17-12 victory over the Hawkeyes two years ago are still with the team and have carved their own paths as leaders.
As many fans likely remember, 2019 was the year of promise in the running back room.
Led by sophomores Journey Brown and Ricky Slade, Penn State spelled the lead backs with two true freshmen in Noah Cain and Devyn Ford, who excited fans with their explosive plays and impact in the red zone.
Following the win against Iowa, Cain’s name would not be forgotten.
With a game-high 22 carries, the Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native took off for his second straight 100-yard performance and found the end zone for one of Penn State’s two touchdowns against the Hawkeyes that Saturday.
Still looking for a spark to his 2021, Cain will return to Iowa City for the first time in two years — the last time he rushed for 100 yards in a game.
On the defensive side of the ball, Penn State’s win against Iowa featured breakout performances from two inexperienced defenders.
Their names? PJ Mustipher and Jaquan Brisker, now household names not just around Happy Valley but also likely on the big boards of dozens of NFL scouts.
All Brisker could’ve hoped for was an opportunity when he caught his second-career interception against Iowa in his inaugural season as a Nittany Lion.
Meanwhile, Mustipher was still on the prowl for his first big-time play of 2019.
Luckily, that play came against Iowa on a forced fumble from the Owings Mills, Maryland, native.
For much of the world and Penn State football alike, 2020 was a year of adversity.
However, after the Nittany Lions’ 0-5 start last year, they have won nine straight, dating back to a loss in Beaver Stadium against the Hawkeyes.
Many of the blue and white’s current key playmakers have already made an impact in Kinnick Stadium when they were less experienced.
As more polished and poised athletes in 2021, Saturday could serve as a triumphant welcome back to Iowa City for a good number of the Nittany Lions who experienced the 2019 season.
Nonetheless, Iowa is the No. 3 team in the country and for good reason.
Two undefeated teams and two commanding defenses that know all too well about each other, will face off Saturday night.
The dividing line between the two: Who wants the playoff more?
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