Game Preview: No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions at No. 17 Minnesota Golden Gophers

By Matthew Filipovits on November 8, 2019 at 10:00 am
Oct 26, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Tyler Johnson (6) rushes with the ball in the second half against the Maryland Terrapins at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
© Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The fourth-ranked Nittany Lions travel to Minneapolis to take on an undefeated Golden Gophers squad that nobody saw coming.

  Penn State Minnesota
2019 Record 8-0 (5-0 in Big Ten) 8-0 (5-0 in Big Ten)
Head Coaches James Franklin (77-36, 53-21 with Penn State) PJ Fleck (50-35, 20-13 with Minnesota)
Kickoff 12:00 PM EST 
Television ABC
Stream WatchESPN
spread Penn State -7

Grounded Gophers

Minnesota has the best rushing attack the Nittany Lions have seen in Big Ten play, with the Gophers averaging 204.5 yards per game on the ground. Rodney Smith leads the way with 889 yards on the ground, but fellow backs Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks have also been productive in relief. This may just be the most proven running back unit the Nittany Lions will face all season.

The only team the Nittany Lions have played with a similar rushing attack to Minnesota is Buffalo when the defense allowed 184 yards on 54 carries, good for an average of just 3.2 yards per carry. With Penn state's defensive line without one of its key pieces, expect the Golden Gophers to try to wear down the front seven, rotating all three backs to keep everyone fresh. The Gophers have lived on the ground game, so the entire defensive line will need to be on their A-game.

A stout pass defense

The Gophers boast the ninth-ranked pass defense in the country, making them the second top-10 unit the Nittany Lions will have played, with the other being Michigan. Minnesota's secondary is led by ball-hawking safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who's credited with five of the Gophers' Big Ten leading 11 interceptions. 

Sean Clifford has consistently made good decisions en route to a 20:3 touchdown to interception ratio. Expect this Gopher secondary to key in on KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth, forcing Clifford to look to some of his other options. He'll need to be smart with the football once again in order to keep the ball out of the other team's hands and keep that Minnesota offense on the sideline.

Struggling special teams

The Gophers have been awful on special teams this season, where they rank No. 91 nationally in SP+. Punter Jacob Herbers averages under 39 yards per punt, with just 10 of his 27 punts being downed inside the 20, while kickoff specialist Grant Ryerse has had only 27 of his 53 kicks go for touchbacks. To make matters worse, field goal kicker Michael Lantz is 6 for 10 on the season, with his long being a mere 37-yarder.

Now, the Gophers are decent in kickoff coverage, but they can give up some big plays in the punt return game. With KJ Hamler expected to command a lot of attention in the passing game, these return opportunities may provide his best chance to make a big impact on the game. Look for him to rip off at least one big return that gives the offense great field position.

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  • Penn State's run defense shuts down the Gophers' rushing attack. The Nittany Lions forced Michigan State to try to beat them through the air, and we all saw how that worked out. Doing the same here should result in a similar outcome.
  • Sean Clifford proves he can get the job done by throwing to his complimentary guys. The Gophers have had two weeks to prep for this game, so you can bet they have a plan to limit the damage done by KJ Hamler and Pat Freiermuth. If that is the case, this could be a huge coming-out party for Jahan Dotson and Justin Shorter.
  • Multiple running backs go over 75 yards. At this point in the season, it's safe to say that no running back is going to dominate the carries. At times, that has seemed to slow down the offense a bit, but it's kept all four guys healthy through most of the season. If at least two backs can make the most of their carries and create big plays, we could see the most complete offensive performance to date.

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  • Minnesota's rushing attack is able to wear down Penn State's front seven. The Nittany Lions have hung their hat on their run defense all season en route to a top-five defense. If the Gophers can consistently gain yards, this defense will run out of steam quickly.
  • The Golden Gophers' receivers are able to get open. Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson rank No. 3 and No. 4 in the Big Ten in receiving yards per game, both slightly ahead of KJ Hamler. Penn State's corners have been banged up and we can expect to see true freshmen Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson get a good amount of run. If these two receivers are able to get open, quarterback Tyler Johnson could pick this secondary apart.
  • Penn State isn't able to get anything going on the ground. As we mentioned, this Minnesota secondary is good at forcing mistakes, so the Nittany Lions will need a balanced attack to improve to 9-0. If none of the backs are able to get into a rhythm and help the offense have long scoring drives, things could get weird.

Prediction In Gif form

The Golden Gophers are a great story and are a legitimately good team, but they just don't have the talent to compete with Penn State.

With Noah Cain finally atop the depth chart, the Nittany Lions try to establish the run early, with the bruising back leading a long scoring drive to open things up. The defense goes out there and does its thing, forcing at least one takeaway in the first half. Sean Clifford gets into a rhythm and connects with Justin Shorter more than we've seen him do all season. The Gopher secondary continues to make plays, forcing Clifford to make a mistake. Still, the Nittany Lions go into the half up 24-7.

Penn State comes out in the second half firing on all cylinders, scoring on their first drive out of halftime. From there, we see the offense begin to turtle up once again, as they continue to keep some cards close to the chest in an attempt to catch some future opponents off guard. Brent Pry and Co. begin to work in some of the young guys a bit more to start off the fourth, allowing the Gophers to put up some late points, but it's too little, too late. The Nittany Lions win 38-17, improving to 9-0 for the first time since 2008.

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