By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – For the past few days, I’ve felt like Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway with my 10-year old dog, LaKota, playing the role of Wilson.
I’m alone, on an island when it comes to my prediction for the Iowa-Penn State football game on Saturday in prime time at Kinnick Stadium.
I picked the Hawkeyes in late July to pull off the upset and will stick to it, although, my confidence is waning as the game approaches.
Even my friends who are delusional Hawkeye homers, and whose glasses aren’t just always half full, but overflowing, are picking Iowa to lose.
Some are picking Iowa to lose big.
As for my colleagues, I’m not aware of any who are picking Iowa to win on Saturday. And that includes those in the media who usually put Iowa in a positive light.
Iowa fans apparently feel that having more than one miracle upset in a calendar year is asking for or expecting too much.
It has been slightly more than 10 months since Iowa shocked the college football world by defeating previously undefeated Michigan 14-13 on a Keith Duncan field goal as time expired on Nov. 12, 2016 at Kinnick Stadium.
The same lack of confidence that exists now also was present in the days leading up to the Michigan game last season.
And Penn State had a lot to do with that.
Hawkeye fans were concerned that their team was unraveling heading into the Michigan game last season because the game was played a week after Penn State had crushed Iowa 41-14 in State College, Pa.
The circumstances are just the opposite heading into Saturday’s game with Iowa 3-0 and gaining momentum and confidence with each victory.
And yet, hardly anybody seems to give Iowa much of a chance against fourth-ranked Penn State.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz respects every opponent, but he really laid it on thick when talking about Penn State on Tuesday, especially when asked to comment on the hype surrounding the showdown at running back between Saquon Barkley from Penn State and Iowa’s Akrum Wadley.
Ferentz made it seem as if Barkley was in a different class than his star running back.
“I mean this with all due respect to Akrum, but we're talking about Barkley being one of the guys that's going to be I would imagine a top-five pick,” Ferentz said in reference to the 2018 NFL Draft. “I don't know all the seniors in the country, but my guess is he would have been pretty high last year. Akrum is a really good football player, too. But you look at their surrounding cast, the supporting cast, their entire offense, man for man, eleven guys, there's a reason why they won the championship last year and why they had such a good year.
“There's a reason why they're in the top five right now. They're a team that's really loaded right now. They're playing well. They've got good players. You know, if you start comparing it that way -- and football is all about team. Akrum made some plays on his own. He's really good at that, obviously, but we're going to need to help him. It can't just all be about Akrum.”
It also can’t just all be about Barkley, either.
And with Penn State, it never is, thanks to Trace McSorley’s emergence as a star quarterback. McSorley threw two touchdown passes and ran for another in the rout against Iowa last season.
He isn’t a dual-threat quarterback in the class of Seneca Wallace or Antwaan Randle El, but McSorley is always a threat to run or scramble from the pocket after a play breaks down.
“One thing we try to do with every quarterback is make him uncomfortable,” said Iowa defensive end Parker Hesse. “(McSorley) does a great job of being elusive and getting out of the pocket and he can make a lot of plays that way.
“Being disruptive while containing him is an emphasis for us up front.”
In barely a year, McSorley has gone from being mostly unknown outside of the Penn State locker room to one of the conference’s most versatile quarterbacks.
“I don't pretend to be an expert, but it seems like he came out of nowhere last year,” Ferentz said. “I don't know, there wasn't much buzz about him in Chicago as I recall two years ago, but probably should have been.
“He's probably representative of their football team because as he got better, they got better. It was a little bit of a bumpy road for them early last year, but when they got into October, they started really clicking and never looked back. I mean, they just had a tremendous season. And I think his development and his growth and comfort out there is a really big part of that.”
Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead has been the mastermind behind McSorley's improbable rise. Moorehead's offense is creative and has a knack for exposing an opponent's weaknesses.
And, of course, it helps having talented players, and Penn State has lots of them under head coach James Franklin.
My confidence in Iowa took a hit at the Tuesday press conference as Ferentz made the Nittany Lions seem almost unbeatable.
There was a method to Ferentz’s love fest. He wants his players to embrace the underdog role - Penn State is favored by 12.5 points - and to let actions speak louder than words.
Ferentz downplayed the significance of what Barkley said after last season's game when he basically accused the Iowa players of quitting in the second half. The Iowa players also said little about it on Tuesday.
In fact, some of the players, including senior linebacker Bo Bower, said they weren't aware of Barkley's comments until the media brought it up on Tuesday.
Some fans believe the players were being less than truthful and they assume that Iowa strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle has reminded them every day before and after practice about what Barkley said.
Whatever the case, energy and motivation shouldn't be a probelm for the Iowa players on Saturday.
As for my prediction for an upset, it was easier to defend in late July with the game still almost two months away.
But with kickoff just a day away, it’s time to explain my madness.
Let’s start with home field advantage and with it being a night game. Iowa has won four consecutive games under those circumstances, including two with field goals as time expired.
If this game were being played in Happy Valley, no way would I pick Iowa in an upset.
But there is something special about playing under the lights at Kinnick Stadium for the home team.
Turnovers also help to fuel upsets, and Iowa forced two pivotal turnovers against Michigan last season.
The same thing has to happen against Penn State on Saturday.
Iowa kicker Miguel Recinos also has to seize the moment should it come his way.
Keith Duncan met that challenge last season by making a 33-yard field goal as time expired to defeat Michigan, while Marshall Koehn made a 57-yard field goal to defeat Pittsburgh 27-24 in 2015 at Kinnick Stadium.
Duncan is now Recinos's backup, which means they've flipped roles since last season when Recinos was Duncan's backup.
But more than anything, Iowa has to sustain a rushing attack against Penn State.
That was the key factor in last season’s beat-down as Penn State shredded Iowa for 359 rushing yards, while also holding the Hawkeyes to just 30 yards on the ground.
My inspiration for picking the upset on Saturday is due partly to thinking that Iowa will have more success on the ground against Penn State this time.
Wadley might not be in Barkley’s class, but Wadley is one of the most dangerous and explosive running backs in college football and he has the luxury of running behind a veteran offensive line. Even without starting right tackle Ike Boettger, Iowa's offensive line is solid and should be above getting dominated by any opponent, including Penn State.
Wadley also acts as sort of a buffer for Iowa sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley, who will face his first ranked opponent on Saturday.
Stanley doesn’t have to win Saturday’s game, but he has to avoid losing it. He has to play with the same poise and vision that helped him throw 10 touchdown passes and just one interception in the first three games.
“It’s just a big opportunity,” Stanley said. “All you can ask for is an opportunity to be out there with your teammates and just go out and perform to the best of our abilities and just play a great game.”
Should that happen and Penn State struggles, then anything is possible.
I’m sticking with the upset, although, I also picked Iowa to lose to Iowa State two weeks ago in Ames.
So follow my lead at your own risk.
Prediction: Iowa 23, Penn State 21