The most intriguing part of this Penn State football season is watching a first-time head coach and his new team grow each week.
It’s still going to take a while to be convinced things won’t be like they were in the past.
Take tomorrow night’s game here in Iowa.
It was the kind of situation that made Penn State fans fearful from the first day of game week, if not before.
That’s because the Hawkeyes liked to play the way Penn State wanted to play: Conservative, safe, don’t make mistakes. Only the Hawks always seemed to be more at ease pulling it off, especially in comfy Kinnick Stadium.
Bill O’Brien figures to push the pedal more, on both sides of the ball. Where will the aggression and confidence take this team in Iowa City?
Here are five keys to the outcome:
1. Hang onto the ball. The Lions have been exceedingly successful in not giving up turnovers. Of course, Iowa has been, too. These have become two of the most opportunistic teams in the league.
With Penn State holding the edge on both sides of the ball, the Hawkeyes need to force interceptions and turnovers, giving their offense short fields.
That would be tough for this Penn State offense to recover from on the road.
2. Matt McGloin. You get the sense the offense, and even the entire team, will go as he does.
The senior quarterback has thrived in his new role of full-time starter. He seems to love the responsibility of checking off plays at the line of scrimmage. And he has cut down on his forced decisions and bad passes.
He needs to continue that, if not take his improvement to the next level. The Lions cannot afford an off night from their leader.
3. Hold the line on special teams. At this point, the Lions don’t need huge successes in special teams to secure victories. They simply need to keep some of their shaky performers from handing rewards to the opponent.
It’s probably the biggest problem area on this team, from field goal kicking to punting to punt returning to punt coverage.
Almost always, Kirk Ferentz’s Iowa teams thrive on causing these type of game-changing plays (at Penn State, 2009).
4. Force the Hawkeyes to throw. You’d think it would be risky to place the game’s burden on an inexperienced, senior quarterback like Iowa’s James Vandenberg.
However, Iowa’s pass game so far has been only a short, safe plan without any punch.
They have survived because of another formidable offensive line and the running of snowplow Mark Weisman.
But if Weisman’s bad ankle won’t let him play effectively, the Penn State defense needs to snuff out his replacements in short order. Then make Iowa completely one-dimensional and turn the Lions’ young defensive ends and star linebackers loose.
5. Diversify the offense, once again. O’Brien has been a master of this so far. He’s created stars out of receiver Allen Robinson and tight ends Kyle Carter and Matt Lehman and unknown tailback Zach Zwinak, even McGloin.
And so the game plan offense could use another timely accelerator in the form of a healthy Bill Belton. The guess is that the bye week had to aid in the sophomore tailback’s recovery from a nasty high ankle sprain.
He played the previous couple of games but wasn’t running confidently or successfully. But we know he can be a weapon when he’s right, especially turning a corner or getting in space on a pass out of the backfield.
Our eyes will be on him from the start tomorrow night.