Penn State vs. Minnesota: Key Storylines for Big Ten Showdown

Scott Polacek@@ScottPolacekFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2013

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 26:  Quarterback Christian Hackenberg #14 of the Penn State Nittany Lions looks to hand off against the Ohio State Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium on October 26, 2013 in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
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The Penn State Nittany Lions travel to Minnesota to take on a suddenly resurgent Golden Gophers squad in one of Saturday’s early contests.

Penn State sits at 5-3 on the year and 2-2 in the Big Ten. The Nittany Lions will look to win this game and next week’s against Purdue to ensure themselves a winning record, with difficult contests against Nebraska and Wisconsin looming to finish the schedule.

Minnesota is 7-2 and will look to defend its home turf against one of the traditional powers in the Big Ten. Let’s dig into some key storylines for this one.


Wait, Is Minnesota Good?

Nobody is going to mistake Minnesota for Ohio State, Wisconsin or Michigan State when delving into the Big Ten’s 2013-14 football season, but the Golden Gophers have quietly amassed an impressive season thus far.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - SEPTEMBER 08: Mascot Goldy Gopher of the Minnesota Golden cheers during the game against the Miami of Ohio Redhawks as Minnesota defeated Miami of Ohio 41-35 in triple overtime at the Metrodome on September 8, 2007 in Minneapolis, Minnes
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Minnesota is currently in the midst of a three-game winning streak following victories over the likes of Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana. The Golden Gophers are sitting at 7-2 and 3-2 in the Big Ten but would probably be justified if they felt nobody was paying attention. A win against Penn State would change that lack of attention, at least within Big Ten region.

If this Minnesota team really is formidable, a quality bowl game could be on the horizon. There will likely be two losses to finish the schedule against Wisconsin and Michigan State, but a victory here would ensure eight wins and solid bowl positioning.


Minnesota’s Rush Offense vs. Penn State's Defense

One of the keys to this game will be Minnesota’s rushing offense against Penn State’s defense.

Woody Hayes would be proud of the Golden Gophers’ tendency to run the ball in today’s high-paced and pass-crazed college football world. They currently rank in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards per game (221.1) and will look to unleash David Cobb, Rodrick Williams Jr. and even mobile quarterback Philip Nelson on the ground.

The Nittany Lions are stout in the middle though and need to contain the rushing attack if they hope to come away with a road victory.


Christian Hackenberg vs. Minnesota's Pass Defense

With no bowl game or Big Ten championship to play for, the most important thing for Penn State this season is arguably the maturation and growth of freshman signal-caller Christian Hackenberg.

Every game that he can put up solid numbers helps build his confidence and makes the future look just a bit brighter for the Nittany Lions. Basically, Penn State fans need to pull for more games like the victory over Michigan from Hackenberg and fewer like the blowout loss to Ohio State.

Minnesota ranks 51st in the country in points given up. The opportunities will be there through the air with Allen Robinson and Jesse James; Hackenberg just needs to take advantage of them.