Illinois quarterback Juice Williams (7) runs against Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn, top left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game in
Illinois quarterback Juice Williams (7) runs against Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, top left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008. Penn State plays Iowa Nov. 9. ((AP Photo/Seth Perlman))
This may well be the most underrated challenge of the season.

The Nittany Lions, with that big undefeated bull's-eye on their backs, will take a long flight today to play a perturbed opponent that's lost four games by a combined 12 points.

Meanwhile, Iowa City temperatures are plummeting with high wind, snow flurries and rain showers expected during the game. Always, Kinnick Stadium possesses a frenzied mob to deal with, too.

And the Lions must succeed through all of this while shaking off any rust from a bye week.

The thing is, these Penn State players seem quietly confident in themselves for Saturday's challenge against the Iowa Hawkeyes - and maybe they should after already surviving daunting road engagements at Wisconsin and Ohio State.

They maintain that their off-week was a success, a combination of some heavy practice sessions and much-needed rest. A working vacation, so to speak.

"Yeah, this bye week was huge," said safety Anthony Scirrotto, a team captain. "It's just nice to be able to rest your legs and then get away from it all and just have your mind off of things.

"I mean, we're in a three-game playoff now. These last three games are big, and we're playing against great teams," he said. "So we're fresh, ready to go."

Certainly, Saturday doesn't have the look of a runaway victory. Though only 5-4, Iowa has lost those games by a field goal here, a touchdown there. Figure on the Hawkeyes trying to prove that they can, indeed, win a close one against a quality opponent.

So this could be quite a dicey proposition on enemy turf. The Hawks boast the most productive tailback in the Big Ten in Shonn Greene, a bruiser with wheels, who coach Joe Paterno compares favorably to Lydell Mitchell.

The key, though, should be the ability of quarterback Ricky Stanzi to move the pocket and repeatedly fire accurate short and mid-range passes - while avoiding the momentum-crushing turnovers that has plagued this team throughout.

Meanwhile, Iowa also brings one of the top defenses in the league, led by a pair of dominating tackles in Mitch King and Matt Kroul. Former York native and Harrisburg High grad Jeremiha Hunter is a quick, tough hitter at linebacker.

Then add to the mix that coach Kirk Ferentz has pretty much owned Penn State until last year. He beat the Lions five-straight times (including that infamous 6-4 victory in 2004) before losing decisively in Beaver Stadium last fall.

Undoubtedly, this team could easily be 7-2 or better instead of still simply trying to become bowl-eligible.

The Lions?

This is the first of three final stops on their way to a possible national title game appearance in Miami.

A couple of the best story lines here involve quarterback Daryll Clark and his recovery from a concussion two weeks ago at Ohio State. With running lanes expected to be scarce, the outcome may rely on his ability to freeze the Iowa defenders on play-fakes and stretch the field with his right arm.

That brings receiver Deon Butler and his buddies into the spotlight. Noticeably absent in past weeks have been throws across the middle, especially to the tight end, and intermediate and deeper tosses to the wideouts.

Butler, for example, needs only four catches to pass Bobby Engram for the school career record.

"I mean I'm aware that I'm getting close because people have been mentioning it to me over the past week, but I'm not too concerned about it," Butler said.

Iowa’s Shonn Greene, right, gets past Illinois’ Sam Carson (43) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Champaign, Ill.,
Iowa's Shonn Greene, right, gets past Illinois' Sam Carson (43) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Champaign, Ill., Saturday, Nov. 1, 2008. Iowa is playing Penn State Nov. 8. ((AP Photo/Seth Perlman))
"I'm more concerned about going undefeated and winning this week."

And that will be a greater challenge than many expect, when considering the opponent and the fans and the weather.

Just another way for this team to prove itself again.

fbodani@ydr.com; 771-2104

TAILGATE TALES

When thoughts turn to Iowa, you probably think of corn and farms and flat earth.

We think of writers. (We're partial to writers here, for some reason).

And the University of Iowa is the place to go to get schooled in the written word, in all fashions.

Start with how the university's creative writing program is considered the best in the nation.

Its well-known prestigious writers' workshop also is billed as the first of its kind in the world.

The international writing program at Iowa? The only one of its kind in the world.

No surprise, then, that Iowa alums have won at least 13 Pulitzers over the years.

The list of former Hawkeyes and their writing-related accomplishments is quite impressive:

Mildred Wirt Benson was the first author to write under the "Carolyn Keene" pseudonym for the Nancy Drew mystery novels. W.P. Kinsella wrote "Shoeless Joe," which was adapted into the film "Field of Dreams." Tennessee Williams penned "A Streetcar Named Desire" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." And Richard W.

Maibaum wrote Broadway plays and 13 James Bond movie scripts.

And those Pulitzers range from fiction to poetry to explanatory journalism.

We're talking about a broad spectrum of writers. Grad Max A. Collins wrote the comic strip "Dick Tracy" and film writer Nicholas Meyer co-wrote and directed "Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," among others movies.

But the most intriguing connection of them all goes to Cory SerVaas, who was the editor and publisher of The Saturday Evening Post.

She was an inventor, a medical doctor - and the mother of five children.

-Frank Bodani

PSU KICKOFF

   What: No. 3 Penn State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) at Iowa (5-4, 2-3)
   Where: Kinnick Stadium (70,585)
   When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
   The line: Penn State by 7
   TV: WHTM-27
   Radio: WSBA-910 AM, WHVR-1280 AM

PSU PODCAST
   For a preview of Saturday's game against Iowa and the latest opinions and analysis on the Nittany Lions, be sure to check out the Daily Record/Sunday News Penn State Podcast in the Sports section at inyork.com/ydr.