Iowa's upset hopes placed on solid defense

Posted by ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg

Matt Kroul is used to having sizable burdens placed on his sturdy shoulders.

The Iowa senior defensive tackle owns the nation's third-longest active streak of consecutive games started (46), a mind-boggling run compounded by the fact he plays one of football's most grueling positions. Kroul and fellow defensive tackle Mitch King have become pillars in the middle of the Hawkeyes' defensive line the last few seasons.

"They're the heart and soul of the unit," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said of King and Kroul. "They've just done an outstanding job. The front seven's played pretty well, and it starts with those two guys."

When No. 3 Penn State visits Kinnick Stadium on Saturday afternoon (ABC, 3:30 p.m.), Kroul knows Iowa's chances for a major upset rest heavily on himself and his fellow defenders.

"We've got to play our best," he said. "If we don't, they're going to make us pay. It's up to us, so it's going to be a good challenge."

Iowa comes in at 5-4, with all its losses coming by five points or fewer. In many respects, the Hawkeyes' defense has pulled its weight, ranking seventh nationally in scoring (13.2 ppg), 12th in rushing (100.6 ypg) and ninth in pass efficiency (100.5 rating).

The Hawkeyes have held opponents to 16 points or fewer in six games, and the defensive line is arguably the second best in the Big Ten behind Penn State's front four. Despite the impressive numbers, the only ones that matter haven't panned out for Iowa.

"There's always those five or six plays or that one series that we keep giving up," Kroul said. "It's come back in the end to hurt us. We definitely want to put together an entire game this time."

Like many of Iowa's opponents, Penn State players describe the Hawkeyes' defensive scheme as vanilla, though it's not meant as a putdown. Iowa doesn't employ confusing blitz packages or odd formations.

"It's, 'Hey, we're going to show you what we're going to do, but can you beat us doing it?'" Penn State wide receiver Deon Butler said.

Penn State has a catchy name for its offense (Spread HD) and plenty of highlight-reel plays to boot, but Kroul sees a similar simple-but-effective approach with the Lions' system.

"I don't think they've had to venture out too much because they've got some good players and they run the plays that they run very well," he said. "If you run a few of them well, there's no reason to run 10 to 12 different ones."

Kroul called Penn State's offensive line the best he will face to date and looks forward to going against national award candidates like center A.Q. Shipley and guard Rich Ohrnberger. Saturday's game will feature arguably the top four interior linemen in the league.

Throw in some nasty weather, and this could be a classic Big Ten clash in the trenches.

"They just bring it to you every snap," Kroul said. "It's kind of exciting for Mitch and I to play guys of that caliber and see how we match up against them."

As much as Kroul looks forward to facing a top 3 team in the twilight of his college career, he knows that the entire defense will have to match his energy level before a raucous crowd at Kinnick Stadium.

"If we can put together a good game versus this team, there's no reason we can't finish the year playing well," he said. "You have to get excited about it. If you don't, something's wrong with you."