Penn State is 0-4 taking on an Iowa program that has beaten down Northwestern and Minnesota over the past two weeks in convincing fashion. In short, the Nittany Lions have their hands full trying to avoid 0-5 and won't have a shortage of problems of their own to figure out in the process.
This week the things to watch are much more existential. It's less about the running game as it is about the mental game. So here are five things to keep an eye on as the Nittany Lions face Iowa.
1. Do you care?
It seem fair to ask how much Penn State players care at this point. Not that they will come out and not try, but if the going gets tough, then what happens next? If Iowa goes up 10-0, is there fight or is there flight? Generally speaking James Franklin's teams haven't been ones to suddenly drop dead when they go down a few scores, but generally James Franklin's teams haven't been starting off the season 0-4. Starting off the game better is a big plus, but until the Nittany Lions do it, seeing it believing.
You can see this on offense, you can see it on defense, you can see it on the sideline. If the road to 0-5 is paved with Iowa touchdowns, it will likely be paved with a bit of indifference as well.
2. Hello Mr Quarterback:
While not yet official, Penn State appears to be headed towards its first mid-season quarterback change since the entire Rob Bolden/Matt McGloin saga. If nothing else it seems unlikely that the Nittany Lions will exit this weekend without some amount of controversy at the most important position on the field. If its Sean Clifford, how does he look? If it's Will Levis, how does he fare in his first major start against a quality opponent?
A lot of this is subjective, but we all know good quarterback play when we see it, and frankly in 2020, we haven't seen much of it. Along those lines, can the talent around whichever quarterback plays, step up its game and continue to provide reliable hands and plays down the field.
3. Do something good:
One might make the argument that Penn State is not all that good at anything other than kickoffs. This might be a bleak and slightly unfair assessment of the state of affairs, but it's also not that far off base. Can the Nittany Lions figure out what they're good at and lean on it? Can they form an identity that isn't centered around being 0-4 and act with decisiveness? A new quarterback might light a spark, but at the end of the day that's only one part of a larger equation.
When it's all said and done winning doesn't happen without identity and purpose, Penn State has to generate both of those things. So far it has yet to do so
The larger hope with the potential quarterback change is that it will spark Penn State's offense which in turn might spark Penn State's surprisingly bland defense. If it doesn't, or if the change doesn't happen, who might be the difference maker that gives Penn State some life? Jahan Dotson was solid early in the year and KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Parker Washington have both stepped up in the last few weeks to look the part. Is that enough to give Penn State's offense some confidence and threats down field? The Nittany Lion running back room also looked its best this past weekend against Nebraska, it will have to look even better against a typical Iowa defensive front.
Can anyone light the spark this team -and this program- needs?
5. The Little Things:
Penn State isn't going to turn a corner in one single game, which means improvements will have to happen in steps. So the little things? not giving up a touchdown drive to open the game. Starting off with a scoring drive of their own. Not committing as many penalties or maybe finding a way to draw a few against Iowa. Run blocking better or pass protection that gives the quarterback enough time to go through reads. Better ball security, better decision making. Consistent kicking, consistent punting.
The list goes on and on. It doesn't have to happen all at once, but little improvements go a long way towards overall quality.