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When these two teams met in Iowa City in 2017, we were treated to one of the best games of the year. Penn State scored a touchdown on the final play of the game to win, 21-19. Could the Nittany Lions and Hawkeyes rekindle that magic under the lights at Kinnick Stadium again this year?
Penn State enters this matchup with a perfect 5-0 record this season. The Nittany Lions have been unchallenged in four of the five wins, with the lone exception being a 17-10 win over Pittsburgh in week three. Since then, Penn State has beaten Maryland and Purdue by a combined score of 94-7.
Reigning Rose Bowl Game Big Ten Player of the Week Sean Clifford leads the Nittany Lion offense. The redshirt sophomore quarterback leads the Big Ten in passing yards per game and has thrown 12 touchdowns this season. Penn State has utilized a running back by committee this season, as five different players have tallied 24 carries this season. Sophomore receiver K.J. Hamler is one of the most dynamic play makers in the Big Ten and leads a young Nittany Lion receiving group.
Penn State has yet to allow more than 13 points to an opponent this season and rank second in scoring defense overall. This is thanks, in large part, to the Nittany Lions pass rushing tandem of junior Shaka Toney and junior Yetur Gross-Matos. Gross-Matos leads the team with 5.5 sacks this season, while Toney is right on his heels with 5.0. As a team, Penn State leads the nation with 25 sacks and 52 tackles for loss through five games this season.
Iowa comes into this game fresh off a heart-breaking loss to Michigan, 10-3. The Hawkeyes are still 4-1 this season, including a win over rival Iowa State, 18-17.
The Hawkeye offense is based around running the ball and controlling the clock. Iowa ranks second nationally in time of possession and prior to the Michigan loss, averaged more than 200 yards on the ground per game. Senior quarterback Nate Stanley has been more than capable under center but threw three interceptions, his first of the year, in the loss against Michigan. Stanley has plenty of options when called upon to throw the ball as the Hawkeyes have six different players with 11 or more catches this season.
There are few things in college football as consistent as Iowa’s defense year after year. The Hawkeyes are always sure tacklers and are solid at all levels. Iowa ranks right behind Penn State in scoring defense, checking in at No. 3 nationally. But unlike the Nittany Lions, the Hawkeyes are ranked that high despite the lack of a pass rush. Without getting into opponents’ backfields, Iowa is still a top-12 defense against the run and the pass. Junior defensive end A.J. Epenesa is the Hawkeye’s best defensive player but has only gotten to opposing quarterbacks twice this season. Senior cornerback Michael Ojemudia is an emerging star in the Iowa secondary with two interceptions this season.
The game is poised to be a defensive battle. Kinnick Stadium is a tough place to play and gets significantly more difficult at night. Iowa is the more experienced team, but the youthful Nittany Lions have shown grit and determination all year long. This will be a tight battle.
It’s time for an annual renewal of the “greatest intersectional rivalry in college football” in South Bend, Ind. To the winner goes the jeweled Shillelagh and bragging rights for a year.
USC has faced one of the toughest schedules in the country through six weeks. The Trojans are 3-2 and come into the rivalry game off a much-needed bye week. Freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis has missed the majority of the last two games with a concussion but has returned to practice. In the two-and-a-half games that Slovis has played this year, he has completed nearly 78-percent of his passes, second best in the country. The success of Slovis and third string quarterback Matt Fink is in part due to the Trojans new Air Raid offensive system and in large part to the athleticism of the USC receivers. Senior Michael Pittman Jr., junior Tyler Vaughns and sophomore Amon-Ra St. Brown have excelled in the new system, combining for 90 catches for 1,153 yards and nine touchdowns through five games.
The Trojans used the bye week to get healthy on defense with budding star sophomore safety Talanoa Hufanga and sophomore cornerback Olaijah Griffin recovering from injuries. Hufanga was leading the team in tackles prior to missing the last game, while Griffin has been the Trojans best cover corner with six passes broken-up this season. Getting healthy in the secondary will be important for the Trojans, but the USC defensive line may be their most important unit against the Irish. In the Trojans’ win over Utah earlier this season, the defensive line – senior Christian Rector, sophomores Marlon Tuipulotu and Jay Tufele, and freshman Drake Jackson – put constant pressure on the Utes’ quarterback. Jackson leads that group with three sacks this season.
Notre Dame lost to No. 3 Georgia, 23-17, in week four, but in many experts’ eyes, they actually gained respect nationally in the loss. Since then, the Irish picked up a strong win against Virginia and beat Bowling Green, 52-0, to improve to 4-1. Senior quarterback Ian Book continues to play like one of the nation’s best quarterbacks with 13 touchdowns and two interceptions. In the last two games, Notre Dame has also rediscovered their rushing attack as junior running back Tony Jones Jr. has surpassed the 100-yard mark in both wins. The receiving corps is deep, with seven different players recording a touchdown reception this year.
Defensively, Notre Dame has feasted on turnovers. The Irish have 14 total takeaways, eight fumbles and six interceptions, and have turned those turnovers into 10 touchdowns. Notre Dame has been particularly good against the pass this season. The Irish, who rank in the top-20 in passing defense and defensive passing efficiency, have held four of five opponents under 200 yards passing and allowed just three passing touchdowns all season. Senior safety Alohi Gilman, the leader of the defense and secondary, is second on the team in tackles and has recorded one interception. Freshman safety Kyle Hamilton and senior cornerback Jalen Elliott have each tallied two interceptions.
The Irish are favorites in this game, but Notre Dame hasn’t faced a passing attack like the Trojans Air Raid offense this year. If Slovis is healthy enough to play for USC, this could be a high scoring affair. If not, this is still a rivalry game and when it comes to rivals, you can throw all logic out the window.
The Gators and the Tigers are two of only a handful of teams who have won multiple national championships since 2000. This year, both appear poised to make a run at a third title.
After Florida’s 24-13 victory over No. 7 Auburn last week, the Gators improved to 6-0 and check-in as the new No. 7 in the polls. Florida dominated in all facets of the win over the Tigers, but perhaps most importantly the Gators got senior running back Lamical Perine going. Perine ran for 130 yards on 14 carries in the victory, more than doubling his previous yardage high this season. The Florida offense had a scare against Auburn when junior quarterback Kyle Trask was forced out with a knee injury in the second quarter. But fortunately for the Gators, Trask returned to the game just before halftime and was able to finish the game. Trask’s favorite target against Auburn was senior receiver Freddie Swain, who leads the team in receiving yards and touchdowns this year.
On defense, the Gators have one of the most dominant front sevens in college football. Florida has made a living in opponents’ backfields, averaging more than four sacks per game. Even when the Gators don’t get to the quarterback, they are creating enough pressure to force opponents into throwing 12 interceptions this year, the most passes intercepted in the country. Florida has done all of this without All-SEC senior defensive end Jabari Zuniga, who hasn’t played since week three. Zuniga is expected to be back at 100 percent healthy and should play against LSU. The Gators secondary will face their biggest challenge of the year in LSU’s athletic wide receivers, but Florida has four players with multiple interceptions in 2019, including junior Sean Davis who leads the SEC with three passes picked off.
LSU’s offense is reaching new heights in 2019. In the past, the Tigers were a ground-and-pound, ball control offense, but not this year. Head coach Ed Orgeron brought in assistant coach Joe Brady from the New Orleans Saints to revitalize the Tigers passing game and it has worked to perfection. Senior quarterback Joe Burrow leads the Tigers No. 1-ranked scoring offense, averaging 54.6 points per game. While that number will certainly go down as LSU faces tougher defenses like the Gators and Crimson Tide of Alabama, the Tigers currently averaging 18 points more than the highest scoring offense in school history (38.6 points per game, 2007). Burrow has a dynamic duo of receivers, junior Justin Jefferson and sophomore Ja’Marr Chase, who rank among the top-10 in the SEC in catches, yards and touchdowns.
On defense, LSU is colloquially known as DBU for their constant production of great defensive backs. Once again, the Tigers are loaded in the back end of their defense, but LSU is also excellent at all levels defensively. Sophomore defensive tackle Tyler Shelvin is already drawing comparisons to LSU legend Glenn Dorsey, while sophomore outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson is an elite pass rusher. Junior linebacker Jacob Phillips has stepped up at middle linebacker, nearly doubling any other player with 40 tackles this season. But without a doubt, the captain and leader of the defense is junior safety Grant Delpit, a 2018 Unanimous All-American.
Tiger Stadium at night is one of the most intimidating settings in all of college football. Since 2000, LSU is 89-12 at night in “Death Valley”. Florida’s best chance to win this game is to find a consistent rushing attack. That will keep the high-octane Tigers’ offense off the field. LSU’s key to victory is to contain the Gators’ pass rush and give Burrow time to pass.