No. 17 Minnesota Hands Sean Clifford, No. 4 Penn State 1st Loss in Upset Win

Kyle Newport@@KyleNewportFeatured ColumnistNovember 9, 2019

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - NOVEMBER 09: Wide receiver Seth Green #17 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrates his rushing touchdown with teammates against the Penn State Nittany Lions during the fourth quarter at TCFBank Stadium on November 09, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The No. 17 Minnesota Golden Gophers defended their home field and upset the No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions 31-26 in a battle of unbeatens at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday.

Tanner Morgan led the way for the Golden Gophers, throwing more touchdown passes (three) than incompletions (two) in 20 attempts.

The victory provided a major boost to Minnesota's College Football Playoff resume, as it marked the first win against a ranked opponent for P.J. Fleck's squad. Penn State's CFP hopes took a serious blow.


Notable Performances

Penn State

QB Sean Clifford: 23-of-43, 340 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT; 10 carries, 39 yards

RB Journey Brown: 14 carries, 124 yards, 2 TD

WR KJ Hamler: seven catches, 119 yards

TE Pat Freiermuth: seven catches, 101 yards

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QB Tanner Morgan: 18-of-20, 339 yards, 3 TD

RB Rodney Smith: 18 carries, 51 yards

WR Rashod Bateman: seven catches, 203 yards, 1 TD

WR Tyler Johnson: seven catches, 104 yards, 1 TD


Early Mistakes Doom Nittany Lions

Penn State had rarely trailed this season entering Saturday's showdown. Against the Golden Gophers, though, the Nittany Lions found themselves playing from behind nearly from the start.

And much of the blame can be placed on self-inflicted mistakes.

Clifford underthrew receiver Justin Shorter on a deep ball on the third play of the game, resulting in a jump-ball interception by Antoine Winfield Jr. On the ensuing Golden Gophers possession, a missed tackle allowed Rashod Bateman to get loose for a 66-yard touchdown:

Though Clifford and the offense responded with a touchdown to even the score, the Penn State defense continued to struggle. Minnesota's second possession also resulted in a touchdown, with missed tackles once again an issue for James Franklin's squad:

It was an all-around rough half for the Nittany Lions.

Clifford completed just nine of 21 attempts for 132 yards with a pair of interceptions. It wasn't all on Clifford, though, as Hamler (four catches for 70 yards) and Freiermuth (four for 62) were about the only pass-catchers to provide any help.

Penn State scored on three of its six first-half possessions but had to settle for field goals on its two trips to the red zone. As a result, the Nittany Lions trailed at halftime for just the second time this season.

They dug themselves too big a hole, as they were unable to come all the way back from a 14-point deficit.


Minnesota Makes Statement to CFP Committee

While No. 1 Ohio State and No. 4 Penn State earned the CFP selection committee's respect in winning their first eight games, Minnesota landed at No. 17 because it had yet to prove itself against a ranked team.

Well, the Golden Gophers' first test came against a team that was positioned to be in the playoff field. And they passed.

After averaging 220 passing yards through the first eight games, Morgan threw for 240 yards in the first half. He was efficient, completing 10 of 12 passes while tossing three touchdowns with zero interceptions.

Credit goes to the receiving corps as well for helping out the redshirt sophomore. Bateman, Tyler Johnson and Chris Autman-Bell each had a touchdown reception that went for 20-plus yards in the first half.

But it wasn't just the offense.

The Minnesota defense started the season by allowing 29.3 points per game during its nonconference slate, which featured games against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. It has turned things around, though, allowing a total of 24 points in its three previous games.

That momentum carried into Saturday.

The Golden Gophers defense made life difficult on Clifford, with Winfield, another redshirt sophomore, nabbing a pair of interceptions.

A lot of uncertainty previously surrounded Minnesota, but a victory over Penn State will likely lead to a nice jump in the CFP poll. The Golden Gophers will have to continue to prove themselves, though, as they will face No. 18 Iowa and No. 13 Wisconsin, not to mention a possible Big Ten Championship Game appearance.


What's Next

Both teams will be back in action Nov. 16. Minnesota (9-0) will hit the road for a pivotal Big Ten West clash with No. 18 Iowa (6-2). Penn State (8-1), meanwhile, will return home for a tilt against Indiana (7-2) with a showdown against No. 1 Ohio State (9-0) looming Nov. 23.