IOWA CITY, Iowa — For a team considered a two-touchdown underdog by most sportsbooks, Iowa’s players displayed an unusual sense of confidence before their upcoming trip to No. 7 Penn State.
Either they don’t know the betting experts consider the No. 24 Hawkeyes underdogs, or they don’t care. But the bravado radiating from the Iowa football complex was surprising, in light of the opponent they are facing and the annual Beaver Stadium White Out awaiting them on Saturday night.
“I’m not treating them (any) different (from any) other team,” running back Leshon Williams said. “They’ve got good players; we’ve got good players.”
“It’s a historic game for them, and it’s going to be a great atmosphere for us,” cornerback Jermari Harris said. “We view it as a challenge, and we’re looking forward to stepping up and accepting the challenge.”
Iowa got Cade McNamara for games like these. It’s time for him to deliver
Both teams are unbeaten as they were in their last meeting two seasons ago. That day in Iowa City, No. 3 Iowa rallied from a 14-point deficit to beat No. 4 Penn State 23-20. Several players remain from that game, but most of the key players are on NFL rosters.
This year’s Penn State squad features impact players at nearly every offensive position and one of the nation’s top defenses. The Nittany Lions lead the Big Ten in scoring offense (43.7) and time of possession (34:19). In yardage, Penn State ranks third in both offense (467.3 yards per game) and defense (267.3).
The Hawkeyes are seventh in the conference in scoring offense (28.3 points per game) and fifth in scoring defense (12.3), just behind Penn State (11.7). Iowa is 13th in total offense (302.0) and sixth in total defense (286.0).
The numbers all say Penn State, but Iowa players rarely live in the statistical world and wouldn’t care if they did anyway.
“We’re going there to win the game, or we wouldn’t go,” linebacker Jay Higgins said. “Obviously we’re more focused on what’s going on in the locker room and that would be an extreme confidence booster in the locker room. I feel like we’re rolling pretty high right now, 3-0. We’re the best we could possibly be. So I feel like we’re going in there with the utmost confidence now.”
Here’s a look at four other Tuesday takeaways from Iowa, ranging from injury issues and the return of a starter to an up-and-coming defensive tackle and a defender’s pet.
Iowa’s depth chart unveiled Monday provided a hint that top running backs Kaleb Johnson and Jaziun Patterson could miss the upcoming game at Penn State. On Tuesday, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz didn’t save any suspense for the weekend.
“We’ll evaluate it each week as we go forward, but they’re both going to be out Saturday,” Ferentz said. “We’ll go with the guys we finished up with the other day.”
Johnson started the Hawkeyes’ first two games and suffered a high-ankle sprain late against Iowa State. He did not practice last week and was not in uniform against Western Michigan. Patterson started that game but rushed for six carries for 20 yards before exiting.
The Hawkeyes will use perhaps four running backs with Williams leading the way. Last week against Western Michigan, Williams rushed for 145 yards and caught two passes for 27 yards and a touchdown. True freshmen Kamari Moulton and Terrell Washington combined for 81 rushing yards, and Moulton scored two touchdowns. Sophomore Max White could see time after rushing for a touchdown.
Worse news for Iowa, tight end Luke Lachey had surgery Tuesday on his broken right leg. Ferentz left a slight opening for Lachey to return — “most likely” a season-ending injury — but compared the junior’s situation to former Hawkeyes Brandon Scherff and Drake Kulick, who experienced similar leg breaks but returned the following year without limitation.
“When you deal with injuries or things that, taking a player off the field, it’s tough because there’s a human aspect of this, too,” Ferentz said. “We all lose sight of that because, especially in football, guys have helmets on. They’re like gladiators on the field. But these guys are college kids, and they have feelings.”
Lachey leads the Hawkeyes with 10 catches for 131 yards this year and posted a team-high four touchdown catches in 2022. Despite the injury, Lachey was named as one of five captains for this week’s game. He probably won’t travel this week, Ferentz said, but will in the future.
“I texted Luke, and I told him that he’s going to have the biggest comeback, the greatest comeback story that they’ll talk about forever,” receiver Diante Vines said. “It’s going to be a legendary comeback for Luke.”
Iowa RBs Johnson, Patterson questionable vs. Penn State
Back in the fold
Cornerback Jermari Harris saw his first action Saturday since playing in the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, 2022. He was injured all of the 2022 season and redshirted. This year, he was suspended two games by the NCAA after a gambling investigation. Harris received the shortest suspension of Iowa’s five players receiving punishment.
“I deeply regret it,” Harris said. “It was a mistake that I made.”
Harris intercepted four passes in 2021 while replacing injured All-America cornerbacks Riley Moss and Matt Hankins. After multiple injuries kept him out of action last fall, Harris was a consistent defensive starter this offseason. Redshirt freshman Deshaun Lee replaced him in the lineup.
“Last week was the longest and quickest week in a long time,” Harris said. “It was good to get out there. Honestly, I felt as though I wanted it too much. It kind of kind of took away a little bit of my focus, hence what happened.”
Western Michigan faced a third-and-7 at its 36 when receiver Anthony Sambucci raced past Harris and safety Xavier Nwankpa and hauled in a long strike from quarterback Treyson Bourguet for a 64-yard touchdown. It was difficult to tell whether the Hawkeyes were in quarters or quarter-quarter-half zone coverage, which would assign blame to either defensive back.
“I’m not gonna go into details of that because you never know who could be listening,” Harris said. “I don’t want to give anybody ammunition.”
It took friends and a new coach to convince Anterio Thompson to play football as a senior in high school during the pandemic. Thompson flashed enough talent to compete for junior college powerhouse Iowa Western, but he redshirted in 2021. After one season on the field with the 2022 national champions, Thompson (6 feet 3, 293 pounds) finished with 32 tackles, including 10 for loss and six sacks to become a second-team All-American.
Thompson earned a scholarship to Iowa but didn’t play in the first two games. He finally got on the field against Western Michigan and promptly blocked a punt for a safety.
“That was amazing, just to know how far he’s come,” defensive tackle Logan Lee said. “He wasn’t traveling a few weeks ago, and now he’s actually getting the punt block. So that’s huge.”
Terio Thompson comes from nowhere to join Iowa Hawkeyes
Thompson is slotted behind four high-level defensive tackles so his opportunities will be limited. But his fellow defenders expect him to see action once his fundamentals marry with his ability.
“He’s an unbelievable athlete,” Lee said. “He’s probably a top-five athlete I’ve ever seen in my life. He’s 300 (pounds), and he’s one of the fastest guys. He’s probably chasing down some linebackers at that point. He can move. It’s pretty amazing.”
“He’ll be something special for us down the road,” Higgins said. “When he first got here, we were doing speed training, and then we quickly realized what we had because his 40 time might be scary.”
Seeing defensive action will come after Thompson continues to develop, Ferentz said.
“Anterio is a really talented guy, great young guy, good attitude, tough guy,” Ferentz said. “But he’s got to learn how to play and with that will come playing faster and a little bit more effectiveness that way.”
The Dog Days of Summer
Fun read about @HawkeyeFootball players visiting a local animal shelter.
STORY: https://t.co/QAC2UL7J3v pic.twitter.com/jRVBQgQKDh
— HawkeyeFBNotes (@HawkeyeFBNotes) August 31, 2023
Cats and Hawks
Nearly every Iowa football player logged nearly 1,000 of combined community service time this summer at Safe Haven, an animal shelter located about 30 miles west of Iowa City. Most of the players hung out with the dogs. Harris, however, found his own new friend. He brought home a tabby cat he named Anubis.
“He chose me,” Harris said. “That’s kind of why I wanted to pick my animal. As soon as I walked into the room, he walked up on me. I knew he was an attention-loving guy because he just meowed, and he’s got a real loud purr. So I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s the one for me.’”
Harris rooms with fellow defensive back Sebastian Castro, and Anubis is their only pet. Although he calls himself a “dog person,” Castro said he’s not getting a dog of his own because “I don’t want to deal with that right now.”
“The cat cries a little bit every once in a while, but he just wants attention,” Castro said. “If I’m feeling good at the moment, I’ll give him some attention.”
Harris seems to have become a full-on cat whisperer of sorts.
“I’m sure when I get home, he’s gonna be meowing and waiting for me to rub him,” Harris said. “Every day when I walk in, I gotta pick him up or else he’s not gonna stop meowing.”
(Top photo of Leshon Williams (4) and Mason Richman: Matthew Holst/Getty Images)