Commentary

Iowa-Penn State is a classic matchup

Originally Published: September 25, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- If you like your steak grilled, your potato baked and your whiskey straight, tune in to Iowa's visit to Penn State on Saturday night.

Nothing will be fancy. Little will be hidden. It will be all laid out before the 107,282 fans who cram into Beaver Stadium (ABC, 8 p.m. ET). The Hawkeyes and the Nittany Lions are as exciting as Brooks Brothers, as hip as Ivory soap. Avant garde? Try fullback over guard.

[+] EnlargeJoe Paterno
Hunter Martin/Getty ImagesJoe Paterno emphasizes fundamentals and limiting mistakes.

The teams are, if nothing else, a reflection of their coaches. Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions teams have played the same way they dress -- classic, conservative, clean lines, so out they're in. Those qualities are what Paterno finds so appealing about Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz and his teams.

"They're tough," Paterno said. "They play the game the way it should be played. I think that can be attributed to the fact that that's the way Kirk is. Kirk's a no-nonsense guy who's honest. What you see, you get."

Penn State has had one coach in 44 seasons. Iowa has had two coaches in 30 seasons. The programs are as sturdy as a pair of Levi's 501s, as dependable as chocolate cake. Ferentz described it as "believing in what you're doing and doing it well."

They show instead of tell. Swagger is a word unspoken on either campus. If you were to point out to Ferentz that he has a winning record against Paterno, you might hear something like this: "Our last time up there, we got paddled pretty good." The Nittany Lions won 27-7 in 2007.

Wisconsin athletic director Barry Alvarez coached with Ferentz on Hayden Fry's staff at Iowa for six seasons. Alvarez coached against him and Paterno in the Big Ten before retiring as the Badgers' head coach after 2005.

"They play good football," Alvarez said of Iowa. "They're not going to try to trick you. That's the thing. You know what they are going to line up in. You have to out-execute them. Penn State is much the same."

Is it old-fashioned? Alvarez bellowed his answer through his cell phone.

"It's old-school, not old-fashioned," he said. "That's football."

It has been a year of retrenching. People have stopped spending. They eat at home. They shop at discount stores if they shop at all. The old qualities are new again. That's fine with the Paternos and Ferentzes. They never stopped believing in the old qualities to begin with.

"It's not a chessboard," Alvarez said. "It's people, executing with fundamentals. You have to eliminate beating yourself before you can win. Only play one team. Make people beat you. Eliminate mistakes. Don't beat yourself." Alvarez paused. "Most people can't do it."

[+] EnlargeKirk Ferentz
Kim Klement/US PresswireKirk Ferentz learned from coaching legends Hayden Fry and Barry Alvarez.

Ferentz is 6-2 against Paterno. He knows how the legendary coach thinks because he grew up in the Pittsburgh area in the 1970s under the spell of Nittany Lions football.

"You're not going to outthink those guys," Ferentz said of Paterno and his staff. "There's not much they haven't seen. You're not going to out-personnel them. You know you're going to play a good team. You know you better play your absolute best, and you have to be fortunate, too."

Ferentz talked about the cycle of offenses he has seen in his college football career. He brought up the wishbone, the run 'n' shoot and the spread.

"There are a lot of different ways to get it done," he said. "I also believe there are people who can play with a tight end and a fullback on the field."

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald recalled playing against Penn State in the mid-1990s, when he became a two-time All-American at linebacker for the Wildcats.

"You line up against five or six formations and they have five or six plays," Fitzgerald said. "It's like they were saying, 'We're running it here. Stop us.'"

The Penn State offense has modernized under veteran coordinator Galen Hall. But under longtime defensive coordinator Tom Bradley, "they are as boring on defense as I'd like eventually to be," Fitzgerald said.

Five of Ferentz's six victories over Penn State have been by single-digit margins, two in overtime. The last two have been by a total of three points. A year ago, on a cold, blustery day in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes upset the Nittany Lions 24-23. The game cost Penn State a shot at the national championship.

The Penn State fans will turn Beaver Stadium into a "white house" for the nationally televised game. The tents in Paternoville began going up Monday. When the hoopla recedes and the game begins, two teams well-schooled in the fundamentals of the sport will take the field. The hits will be clean. The uniforms will be dirty.

The fullback may even go over the guard.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com