Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Complete Game Preview
In what appears to be a tale of two completely different teams, a Penn State team with questions on both sides of the ball heads to the northern frontier of the conference this weekend to take on a Golden Gophers squad that finds itself at 7-2 and headed toward its best season in a decade.
The Nittany Lions squeaked out a win over Illinois last week in overtime to keep head coach Tim Beckman winless against the Big Ten.
At the same time, Minnesota was in the process of beating the Hoosiers at Indiana. That was the third win in a row for the Gophers, including wins over Northwestern and Nebraska.
The Gophers and Nittany Lions haven't played each other since 2010 when Penn State won in Minneapolis 33-21.
Time: Noon ET
Place: TFC Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, Minn.
Radio: Penn State Network Affiliates
Spread: Penn State is a two-point underdog, according to VegasInsider.com.
Penn State Keys to Victory
Ride the Hot Hand
Bill Belton has really come into his own over past three weeks, rushing for 384 yards over the last three weeks. Opponents are averaging 4.34 yards per carry against Minnesota, and Bill O'Brien will likely give Belton another chance to shine and control the clock.
Win on Third Down
After starting the season with an abysmal third-down conversion rate, Penn State's offense has improved vastly and has converted on more than 47 percent of its third down opportunities over the last two games. It will be crucial this week for the offense to stay on the field and keep the defense rested against the Gopher's power-run offense.
On the other side, Minnesota has converted on 42 percent of its third down opportunities. Penn State will need to keep the Gophers behind the chains and out of their comfort zone, in third-and-long situations.
The Gophers have rushed for over 200 yards six times in nine games. They play physical up front and run downhill. Penn State's front seven needs to step up and control the line of scrimmage, similar to the way Iowa did in Week 5 when it held Minnesota to 31 yards on 27 carries.
Minnesota Keys to Victory
Cover Allen Robinson
Easier said than done, obviously, but it's worth dedicating the resources to stopping the Big Ten's leading receiver. This year, the Penn State offense has been overly reliant on Robinson. If Minnesota can somehow take him out of the game, it can all but shut down the Penn State passing game.
Control the Clock
It's been well documented that Penn State has some depth issues. That fits right into what the Gophers do on a weekly basis. Minnesota will look to run the ball, methodically running time off the clock and wearing down the defense. The Gophers limit the other team's offensive possessions and beat up on the defense, patiently waiting on the opponent to make a mistake. This week, they just need to effectively do what they've been doing all year.
Spread out the Defense
Penn State has struggled this year against mobile quarterbacks in spread offenses. Minnesota has two mobile QBs but uses a more conservative approach. It may benefit the Gophers to change it up on occasion Saturday and exploit a weakness of the Nits.
Penn State Players to Watch
TE Kyle Carter
Fans are hoping that the game-winning catch by Carter last week will ignite his season and bring him back to the level he played at last year. The sophomore tight end is finally healthy again and showed in 2012 what a diverse weapon he can be.
DT DaQuan Jones
Jones has logged just two total tackles in the last two weeks and hasn't had a sack since the second week of the season. He is seeing much more attention up front, freeing up the other linemen, but the Nittany Lions will need him to step up this week if they want to contain Minnesota and the 20th-best rushing attack in the country.
K Sam Ficken
After becoming Mr. Reliable late last season, Ficken has struggled recently, connecting on just five of his last nine field goal attempts. In what looks to be a close matchup, Ficken will need to be better than that in case late-game heroics are called for.
View the full depth chart here.
Minnesota Players to Watch
RB David Cobb
After starting the season buried on the depth chart, Cobb has emerged as one of the best backs in the league, rushing for over 800 yards at 5.43 yards per carry. At 5'11", 225 pounds, Cobb is a load to take down. He's rushed for 429 yards in the last three weeks.
QBs Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner
Nelson has established himself as QB1 by being more dangerous in the passing game, but expect to see Leidner running the ball some on Saturday. The two have combined for nearly 700 rushing yards and are both dangerous with the ball.
DT Ra'Shede Hageman
Hageman has just 28 tackles from his defensive tackle spot, but nine of them have been for a loss. He has a huge 6'6" frame that has helped him knock down six passes and block a pair of kicks to go with his two sacks and interception that he caught against Northwestern.
What They Are Saying
OB said he spoke with Minny coach Jerry Kill about 2 weeks ago to see how he was feeling; Kill dealing with well-documented medical issues— Bob Flounders (@BobbyFlo7) November 5, 2013
Bill O'Brien says RB Akeel Lynch has a sprained MCL and is day to day for Saturday. And the injury is why he didn't play vs Illinois— Mark Dent (@mdent05) November 5, 2013
Minn HC Jerry Kill says he'll remain in booth this wk vs PennSt. JSU QB Max Shortell played for Kill, says "I wish the best for his health."— Al Muskewitz (@almusky_star) November 5, 2013
Bill O'Brien said Adrian Amos played his best game of the season when he was back at CB against Illinois.— Audrey Snyder (@audsnyder4) November 5, 2013
O'Brien said Minnesota makes life difficult for foes on both sides of the ball...downhill run game...No easy plays against Minny, says OB— Bob Flounders (@BobbyFlo7) November 5, 2013
Jerry Kill on the mood of the team: "Winning solves a lot of problems. It always has." #Gophers— Tyler Mason (@FSNtylermason) November 5, 2013
A reminder that Penn State and Minnesota play for hardware… and it isn’t pretty. pic.twitter.com/rP4K8dOzmG— Nittany Lines (@nittanylines) November 4, 2013
Penn State has become an extremely difficult team to predict this year. It seems like every week a new unit steps up or disappears, never allowing us a full look at who this Nittany Lions team really is.
The Gophers, on the other hand, know exactly who they are. Minnesota is going to line up with a full backfield and run directly at Penn State.
That's a matchup that could work in favor of the blue and white.
The Nittany Lions held Michigan running back Fitz Toussaint to one yard per carry and have held half of their opponents to 90 rushing yards or less. With a secondary that has been sketchy—at best—a one-dimensional opponent (17 pass attempts per game) could be the perfect medicine for John Butler's defense.
Minnesota hasn't won four straight Big Ten games in 40 years, and that milestone should be safe this weekend.
Prediction: Penn State 24, Minnesota 20
All stats provided by CFBStats.com