The Nittany Lions, 4-2 and winners of four straight this season, have dropped four in a row at Iowa. Their last victory there came in 1999, by a 31-7 score. They had also lost eight of nine overall to the Hawkeyes before last years' 13-3 victory in Beaver Stadium.
PSU is hoping to be refreshed after its off week, though Bill O'Brien said during his regular weekly news conference Tuesday that his players should take nothing for granted. He pointed out that Iowa (4-2) is coming off a 19-16 double-overtime victory over Michigan State and “has the momentum.”
“Our team,” he said, “needs to understand that, that it's one thing to have a bye week, but it's a whole 'nother thing to be playing a team like Iowa. And we've got to try to go out here and practice and be precise and practice hard with great effort every day and try to equal out that momentum. I thought (Monday's practice) was a decent start.”
Sophomore cornerback/safety Adrian Amos is among those believing in the restorative powers of the bye.
“The off week helped a lot -- just your body, physically,” he said during a conference call with reporters. “You get that break off football and pounding. It makes you fresh coming back on Monday. Everything feels better. Injuries heal up. That's the biggest thing about the bye week.”
Both he and O'Brien believe things are coming together for the defense in general and the revamped secondary in particular. The numbers nonetheless show that PSU, which has four new starters in its defensive backfield this season, is just eighth in the Big Ten in pass defense, allowing 213.2 yards a game, and ninth in pass-efficiency defense (120.8 rating).
But the Lions are sixth against the rush (120.8) and have allowed just 16 points a game, making them the conference's second-stingiest unit.
“We are getting more comfortable with it as a defense,” Amos said, referring to the scheme of new coordinator Ted Roof. “It's becoming easier. It's becoming more second nature, what to do in certain situations. And as a team we feel we're getting stronger and stronger on defense.”
O'Brien, for his part, said the defensive backs are much like the rest of the team, in that they have made steady improvement, notably “in understanding of the schemes and understanding of zone coverage and pattern reads, and then doing a better job with their man-coverage techniques.”
At the same time, he added, “I still think there's a lot of room for improvement, as there is with our whole football team, starting with me, with the coaching staff. We can look to do things better every single day.”
One of the more notable schemes Roof and secondary coach John Butler have implemented is the “Roadrunner” package on obvious passing downs. Amos is a central part of this, since he moves from boundary corner to free safety in place of Malcolm Willis, who departs in favor of freshman corner Da'Quan Davis.
“It's been working well,” Amos said.
Amos made the first start of his career last season against the Hawkeyes -- he wasn't told, he said, until “right before the coin toss” -- and now will face an Iowa team that is largely the same as the one he saw then.
There are some notable exceptions. Mark Weisman, the Hawkeyes' top rusher and the sixth-leading rusher in the Big Ten (631 yards, 6.3 ypc, 8 touchdowns), rolled his right ankle while scoring a TD late in regulation against Michigan State, and is not listed on the team's depth chart this week.
Weisman, a one-time walk-on fullback, had inherited the job earlier in the season because of injuries. Now freshman Greg Garmon (14 carries, 35 yards this season) and sophomore Jordan Canzeri, who tore an ACL in the spring, are listed as the top two tailbacks.
Iowa's offense is subpar in every respect, ranking eighth in the conference in passing yardage (189.0), ninth in rushing yardage (154.7), 10th in scoring (22.0), 11th in total yardage (343.7) and 12th in passing efficiency (106.6).
Quarterback James Vandenburg has completed 57.4 percent of his passes for 1,134 yards, but has thrown just two touchdown passes. Wide receivers Keenan Davis and Kevonte Martin-Manley have 32 and 25 receptions, respectively, but are averaging 11.7 and 10.5 yards per catch.