Minnesota hasn’t won four Big Ten Conference games in a row since 1973. According to my South St. Paul math, that’s 40 years! The Gophers will be going for that elusive fourth straight conference victory and the Governor’s Victory Bell, when they take on the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Nittany Lions needed overtime to defeat the Illinois Fighting Illini last weekend in Happy Valley on their way to a 24-17 win. The victory stretched Illinois’ Big Ten losing streak to 18 games. The fact the Nittany Lions needed overtime to dispatch Illinois tells me that they are not nearly as good as year ago. Behind a veteran defense, Penn State paved the way to an 8-4 record, but were not bowl eligible.
Penn State is a very young football team, especially at the quarterback position, where true freshman Christian Hackenberg is the starter. Still the Nittany Lions are one of the best coached teams in the Big Ten led by head coach Bill O’Brien.
Minnesota Offense: The Gophers offense is starting to get on track. This is what head coach Jerry Kill and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover envisioned when they arrived in Minneapolis three years ago. A balanced offense that can both run and throw the football. Philip Nelson is turning into the quarterback the staff envisioned when they recruited him out of Mankato West High School two years ago and David Cobb is turning into the feature back this offense needs. Not to mention the depth and overall solid play the offensive line has displayed. The Gophers are just a No. 1 receiver away from becoming a great offense. The Gophers have averaged 434 yards of offense per game during their current three game winning streak.
Penn State Offense: Christian Hackenberg is the real deal. He had scholarship offers from schools such as: Alabama, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee. Yet he chose to play for Bill O’Brien and Penn State. Hackenberg has completed over 58 percent of his passes for 2024 yards and 13 touchdowns and only eight interceptions. Not bad for a true freshman. Bill Belton is a nice running back. He has rushed for 689 yards and four touchdowns, averaging over five yards per carry. Allen Robinson is a stud at wide receiver. He has 66 catches for 1043 yards and six touchdowns, and is averaging a whopping 130.4 yards per game. Robinson clearly needs to be the focus of the Gophers defense on Saturday, he will need to be accounted for at all times. Double teams may be necessary.
Offensive Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Defense: The Gophers were gashed in the fourth quarter of the Indiana game aftercomleting a strong performance for a third of the game. That may have had more to do with the fact the Gophers were tired, more than playing poorly. Indiana plays offense at a frenetic pace and the Gophers were left sucking wind at the end. Penn State will bring a pro-style set to town and that should play to the Gophers benefit. They’ve played spread teams on offense the last three weeks. Look for Ra’Shede Hageman to have more of an impact this week’s opponent, after being a relative non factor against IU last week.
Penn State Defense: The Nittany Lions are young defensively. That has proven to be problematic at times as they have gave up 44 points to Indiana, 63 to Ohio State, 34 to Central Florida, and 40 to Michigan. They play hard, but it is certainly a unit the Gophers can expose, especially with the way the offense is rolling.
Defensive Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Special Teams: Punter Peter Mortell has been brilliant this year averaging 42.5 yards per punt. He has booted nine kicks of over 50 yards and 13 of those inside the opponent’s 20 yard line. He has been the strength of the Minnesota special teams unit. Punt returner Marcus Jones has been quiet after getting off to a hot start. Kicker Chris Hawthorne has been solid this year connecting on 11 of 14 field goal attempts.
Penn State Special Teams: Kicker Sam Ficken has connected on 12 of 17 field goals with a long of 54, so clearly Ficken has outstanding range. No kick or punt return scores for the Nittany Lions yet, but redshirt freshman Eugene Lewis is dangerous.
Special Teams Edge: Minnesota
Minnesota Coaching: Jerry Kill will remain in the press box and Tracy Claeys will continue to roam the sideline this weekend. Hey, if it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it, am I right? Kill also strikes me as a superstitious guy, so don’t look for that to change until the Gophers lose. Claeys has been great, possessing a very calm, cool, and collected demeanor on the sideline as opposed to Kill’s fiery leadership. It seems to be a great marriage with Jerry and his staff. They seem to compliment each other well. The job offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has done calling plays has been nothing short of spectacular.
Penn State Coaching: Bill O’Brien won the 2012 Bear Bryant Coach of the Year award, along with ESPN Coach of the Year, and the Maxwell Football Club Collegiate Coach of the Year. Not a bad haul for a first year collegiate head coach. He is one of the best in the biz and to go 8-4 overall and 6-2 in the conference in his first year after what had transpired in State College just before his arrival, was remarkable. He currently has Penn State at 5-3 overall and on their way to yet another winning season.
Coaching Edge: Penn State
Minnesota 27, Penn State 20: Penn State is a tough, well coached, physical football team that won’t beat themselves. However, the Gophers are playing better and even a good Nittany Lions performance won’t be enough. The sellout crowd at TCF Bank Stadium carries the Gophers to another victory. Bring on the Badgers!