After a much needed bye week, Penn State returns to action with a big one against the Golden Gophers. Both squads enter Saturday's game at 8-0, making this one of the biggest games in Minnesota program history. What do the Nittany Lions need to do to keep the train rolling? We asked our esteemed panel that and more in this week's edition of the roundtable.
Usually we try and start these with a question or two from the previous week’s game, but it’s been a couple of weeks since the Nittany Lions comfortably handled Michigan State. What stands out to you overall from that game, and really how Penn State emphatically went into the bye week?
Jarrod Prugar: The biggest thing for me was they started strong and continued to play a strong game the entire time. They got a big win in a place that’s caused them all sorts of issues and that’s exactly what they needed to head into the bye.
Craig Fritz: Road Dogs. It’s pretty remarkable how well Penn State has played on the road this year considering that hasn’t always been the case. Throw out the first few drives in a raucous Kinnick Stadium, and the Nittany Lions have played some of their best and most complete games away from Beaver Stadium. Personally, I am pretty hyped about it.
John Morgan: The thing that stood out to me was the play calling in the first half and how they jumped on an inferior opponent and squashed all thoughts of an upset. The offense looked fluid, and Sean Clifford really looked poised as he dismantled the Spartans defense. It was a great bounce back after a tough second half against Michigan.
The release of the College Football Playoff Rankings has added an additional storyline to this one with the Lions sitting in a playoff spot for the first time ever, albeit with four games to go. Obviously winning the next four plus a possible Big Ten Championship game is the primary goal, but is there anything in particular you take from Penn State’s No. 4 ranking?
Jarrod: While it’s great for the program, there’s just so much that can and needs to happen the rest of the season. It’s shown their schedule is one of the better ones in the country, and just how important Big Ten wins can be.
Craig: It’s huge for the program, honestly. Everyone who follows college football sees those rankings. It’s a validation of the success James Franklin has had in recruiting. Just being in the conversation is very important for the sustained future of Penn State football.
John: Not really. It’s nice for the program, but it’s meaningless with what remains on the schedule. I think it’s more of an accomplishment for a team who has beaten some tough teams, but in reality, it’s a quasi-reality show until all the games are played.
Moving onto this week’s game, the Gophers are riding high at 8-0 for the first time in decades, and looking to prove that record is no fluke, despite the pillow soft schedule they’ve faced thus far. What have you seen from PJ Fleck’s squad through two months that has them in control of the Big Ten West?
Jarrod: Their wide receiver play has been pretty solid, and they’ve gotten decent play from their quarterback. They’ve also completely bought into what PJ Fleck is trying to do and that means success is near. Now, even though their games were close early, they’ve dominated Big Ten play despite having avoided the big names to this point.
Craig: They’ve found ways to win close and also win big. They have made big plays and they’ve controlled the clock. Their start isn’t totally unexpected, either. ESPN’s SP+ system had them favored in their first eight games, and they haven’t disappointed. They aren’t flashy on either side of the ball, but they do what they do very well.
John: I think their quarterback play from Tanner Morgan has been a surprise for a kid who wasn’t the clear starter until Alex Annestad got injured. They have playmakers on the outside and a solid running game, but their defensive improvement has stood out to me because they were not very good last year on that side of the ball.
Penn State’s second bye week hit them at the perfect time after a grueling three-game stretch in October. Do you expect any additional wrinkles out of the break, or was this more of a chance for the Nittany Lions to get healthy, and rest weary bodies?
Jarrod: The opportunity to rest is huge even for guys that aren’t necessarily injured. I’m sure they’ll come out with a few new plays but will still be relatively consistent with what they’ve done up to this point.
Craig: All of the above. I’ve been pretty impressed with the small changes and new plays we’ve seen out of the offense every week. Getting healthy, especially at cornerback, is big too.
John: I would guess there will be some wrinkles on offense as Clifford grows, but this was important to get the rest and heal some banged up players. It’s go-time now, so with three decent teams or better in the next three weeks, it’s time to really see what this team can do.
Looking at Saturday’s game a little closer, what are two or three things that Penn State must do if they are to move to 9-0?
Jarrod: I’m looking at the offense to come out of the gates hot from the outset. If they can get on the scoreboard early and often they’ll be in good shape. Defensively, they’ve got to keep Minnesota off-balance and uncomfortable, which they’re more than capable of doing with their defensive front.
Craig: On defense, they need to contain Minnesota’s running game and limit the grind. This isn’t a game where you want to see the Gophers getting 80-90 plays, especially with Antonio Shelton suspended. On offense, I want to see them get behind Antione Winfield with KJ Hamler and Justin Shorter. On special teams, Blake Gillikin needs continued success, and Hamler could have an opportunity for a big return against Minnesota’s poor coverage teams. Remember he's had two called back for penalties in the last two games.
John: Forcing Minnesota into third and long would be one of the keys for me. Morgan has been good, but if the defense can get him into obvious passing downs, Brent Pry can mix up the blitzes and try to show him something that he hasn’t seen from a defense all year. Avoiding turnovers is vital on offense because Minnesota can control the ball. That could really wear the defense down, especially without Shelton.
The last time Penn State met the Gophers, it sprung the Nittany Lions to a 9-0 finish to the season and a Big Ten title. Can Penn State make it two straight over Minnesota and continue their march towards a first ever playoff berth?
Jarrod: Both teams need this game and need a win. As I said in my piece, a win for Penn State could propel them to even loftier heights as they attempt to dethrone Ohio State in two weeks. Penn State 38, Minnesota 20
Craig: This is obviously a huge game for both teams, but unless Penn State abandons the ball security it’s maintained all year, or has a huge rash of key injuries, I just don’t see Minnesota hanging with the Nittany Lions. There will be points, probably more than Penn State fans will enjoy, but I have the Blue and White up by three scores late with a Gopher garbage-time TD to make it look closer. Penn State 44, Minnesota 30
John: This was the game I feared as a letdown early in the season, and it certainly won’t be that with what is at stake for both teams. Minnesota has managed their schedule well to this point, but I think the Nittany Lion defense will give them problems. The offense will need to continue their improved play and I think the Nittany Lions will win a tough one. Penn State 32, Minnesota 24