Notebook from State College: Nick Niemann is a tackling machine, Iowa remains ‘QB sneak U’

The senior linebacker registered a career-high 17 tackles against the Nittany Lions.


Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 21, 2020; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Iowa Hawkeyes linebacker Nick Niemann (49) tackles Penn State Nittany Lions running back Caziah Holmes (26) during the second quarter at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Robert Read, Pregame Editor

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — With just under a minute remaining in the first half of Iowa’s 41-21 victory over Penn State on Saturday, Nittany Lion head coach James Franklin faced a fourth-and-2 from his own 49-yard line.

At the time, Iowa led 17-7. Had Penn State punted, Iowa likely would have taken the 10-point lead into halftime. But Franklin, for the second time in the half, opted to go for it on fourth down.

And for the second time, Iowa came up with a stop. Penn State quarterback Will Levis threw an incomplete pass, intended for a receiver down the left sideline that was blanketed by an Iowa defender.

“We consider that a turnover,” defensive end Zach VanValkenburg said. “That’s huge for our defense. That was a big turning point in the game.”

The Hawkeyes suddenly had an opportunity to extend their lead going into the break.

Running back Tyler Goodson ran for eight yards on first down and Iowa stopped the clock with 45 seconds remaining in the half.  Petras then connected with wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette over the middle, and the senior pass catcher then darted to the sideline to get out of bounds after an 18-yard gain.

Two more completions by Petras set running back Mekhi Sargent up for his second one-yard rushing touchdown of the game, which came with 11 seconds remaining in the half. After the successful two-minute drill, Iowa led 24-7 going into halftime.

“We had all three timeouts,” quarterback Spencer Petras said. “We had good field position. So at that point it’s, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s get some points.’ After you hit a couple plays, you’re thinking, ‘Alright, let’s get a touchdown.’ It was a great job all around.”

Hawkeye defensive line stepping up

Iowa’s defensive line is on a tear the last three games, and the unit’s performance against Penn State was its best of the season.

The Hawkeyes got five tackles, a sack, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a 71-yard interception return for a touchdown out of defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon. Defensive end Chauncey Golston recorded a sack of his own, as well as two tackles for loss and an interception.

RELATED: Fourth quarter turnovers, dominant defensive line play seals Iowa’s victory over Penn State

VanValkenburg, the reigning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, recovered two fumbles and tallied 1.5 tackles for loss, and added a sack of his own.

For a team that lost star defensive lineman A.J. Epenesa to the draft, Iowa is getting pressure from plenty of players along its defensive front.

“We know that this team feeds off our energy and everything we do starts up front,” Nixon said. “Whether it’s O-line or D-line. It starts up front. We know we’ve got to go out every game, every snap, every series, every play and try to make a difference in the game. We’ve been able to do that the past couple weeks and we’ve just got to keep it going.”

Running game on a roll, and wide receivers are making an impact

Iowa’s wide receiver corps was the talk of the offense heading into the season. But the Hawkeyes have quickly become a run-first team, and for good reason.

Against the Nittany Lions, the Hawkeyes ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns. Sargent accounted for 102 yards (6.7 per carry) and two touchdowns on the ground, while Goodson picked up 78 yards (3.9) and a score of his own.

It was the third straight game — all Hawkeye victories — that Iowa went heavy on the run. That hasn’t produced many targets for Iowa wide receiver Brandon Smith and the team’s other pass catchers.

But they’ve found another way to contribute — blocking.

“If we feel like we can run the ball effectively, we’re going to do it,” Smith said. “Get in where I fit in and play that role. Get after the safeties and corners and try to get the run to the second level.”

Smith didn’t have a target last week against Minnesota. He got involved early against Penn State and ended up catching three passes for 27 yards. The senior has two touchdowns on the year and is capable of going up and grabbing the ball away from any defender in the Big Ten.

Smith is also crucial in Iowa’s blocking scheme, keeping defensive backs away from Sargent and Goodson. Those aren’t highlight reel plays, but keeping those defenders off the perimeter away makes Iowa’s running game all the more effective. But he’s always ready to make a play with the ball whenever the offense calls his name.

“Naturally as receivers we want to be the guys with the ball making plays,” Smith said. “As long as we’re keeping the train rolling and the team is winning, we’re fine as well. If we have to get after those safeties and corners we’ll do it. But when the ball is in the air and they call our number, we’re definitely going to make the play.”

Niemann a tackling machine against Penn State

Any Penn State offensive player that had the ball at any given time on Saturday likely got quite familiar with getting hit by Iowa weakside linebacker Nick Niemann.

Niemann registered a career-high 17 tackles, the most by a Hawkeye since Anthnoy Hitchens had 19 against Iowa State in 2012.

“I think the D-line probably played a big role in that,” Niemann said. “When you have guys out there doing their jobs, keeping the linemen off the linebackers, it’s easy for us to run free and make plays.”

Niemann wasn’t the only Hawkeye defender near the ball for most of the afternoon. Seth Benson and Jack Campbell split reps at middle linebacker, and both players made an impact. Benson finished second on the team with eight tackles, while Campbell tallied seven, plus a sack and a forced fumble.

RELATED: Hawkeyes snap losing streak against Nittany Lions, Ferentz hits milestone in the process

That’s 32 tackles from Iowa’s middle and weakside linebacker spots.

Penn State only ran for 62 yards against the Iowa defense, averaging only 1.8 yards per carry. Levis had some effective runs on Penn State’s second drive of the game, but Niemann and company kept putting hits on the signal caller.

“I think it was just an effort from everyone,” Niemann said. “Having an urgency to get to the ball. It was guys being in their positions, being in their assignments, their gaps. If everyone’s doing that, then it’s easier for everyone else.”

Iowa defense adjusts to Clifford entering the game at QB

When Levis was benched late in the third quarter, Penn State turned to its old starter — Sean Clifford.

Clifford’s first two throws of the game went for touchdowns and brought Penn State to within 10 points entering the fourth quarter. While both Levis and Clifford are threats to run the ball, Clifford added something to the Nittany Lions passing offense.

“When [Levis] came in against Nebraska last week, it was a lot of QB draws,” Niemann said. “I’m not speaking for anyone but I don’t know if he was as comfortable throwing it. So [running] was something we were expecting.”

Iowa’s defense eventually settled in after the change at quarterback. The Hawkeyes intercepted two of Clifford’s passes in the final 15 minutes and won back the momentum and, eventually, the game.

“It took us a second to take a step back and calm down as a defense and get back to playing Iowa football,” Nixon said. “We were up at the end of the first half and we felt like we got too relaxed with those touchdowns… We had to go out there and finish.”

Quarterback sneak University

Third-and-2 from the opponents’ three-yard line doesn’t equal a quarterback sneak call for most teams. But it does for “QB sneak U.”

Petras took the snap and center Tyler Linderbaum and the rest of the interior of the offensive linemen plowed an open path. Petras lunged several yards into the end zone for an easy score, although the referees didn’t call it a touchdown immediately. Apparently the play call and its effectiveness took them by surprise as much as it did the Penn State defense.

Petras may lack touch on his passes at times, but he’s continuing the strong Hawkeye tradition of successful quarterback sneaks.

“It’s the guys up front,” Petras said. “… It’s not me, I’ll tell you that much. I’m not the strongest of the litter. It’s a great job up front. Getting a push. I’ll take those guys against anyone.”

Kallenberger hobbled, missed snaps on Saturday

With starter Coy Cronk out the past three games because of an injury, Mark Kallenberger has been in command as Iowa’s top right tackle. With Kallenberger as part of the team’s five-man front, Iowa’s run game has flourished.

But against Penn State, Kallenberger spent stretches of the game on the sideline. Jack Plumb took over at right tackle. Head coach Kirk Ferentz said postgame that Kallenberger is a “little bit hobbled.”

“Mark has been playing really well so hopefully it’s not too serious,” Ferentz said. “Jack Plum got in there and got to play his first meaningful snaps. He was pretty fired up in the locker room. That will be a really good experience for him.”

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