PSU faces another test against Minnesota
Week 11 of the college football season is here, with many marquee match-ups on the docket. At the end of tonight, the College Football Playoff (CFP) picture will look a bit clearer, with current top-four teams – LSU, Alabama, Ohio State and Penn State – all facing undefeated competition. No. 2 LSU and No. 3 Alabama face off with each other in an SEC battle, while No. 4 Penn State will have to go on the road yet again this week against a tough unbeaten opponent in No. 17 ranked Minnesota (Noon ET, ABC). Ohio State takes on unranked Maryland.
After getting through what many considered a gauntlet in the middle of the Nittany Lions schedule when breaking it down in the beginning of the season, Penn State will head to Minneapolis to try and keep its Big Ten championship and CFP hopes alive. A road trip to No. 18 ranked Iowa, a home game against No. 14 ranked Michigan and then another road game in East Lansing - where the Nittany Lions have struggled recently - against a tough Michigan State defense did not trip them up.
But a three-game stretch ahead – at Minnesota (8-0), home against Indiana (7-2) and then the big one at No. 1 ranked Ohio State (8-0) – is arguably tougher than Penn State’s prior three-game schedule that most every writer or broadcaster throughout the country predicted would hand the Nittany Lions at least one loss.
However, Coach James Franklin’s “1-0 mentality” has seemed to really become the mission statement of this year’s Penn State squad. Each week, despite doubt from many local and national pundits, the players came in focused, played complimentary football and came away with wins. The 2019 Nittany Lions are a team that has learned how to win, and win when some fans and analysts haven’t given them a chance when the pressure was on them. That, in my opinion is an attribute that only very good football teams possess.
The pressure is on Penn State again this week, and once again some national analysts have picked the Nittany Lions to lose as they face off with an unbeaten Golden Gophers team, which figures to be their biggest game in over a decade. Energetic and animated Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck has done a nice job in his third season for the Gophers, coming over from Western Michigan. He famously led Western Michigan to a 12-1 season in 2016 and coined the phrase “row the boat,” which was his motivational saying for basically everyone being on the same page. Fleck will for sure have his players and the crowd fired up for today’s matchup.
It is impressive that Minnesota has started the season at 8-0. However, Minnesota’s 8-0 is not Penn State’s 8-0. The Golden Gophers’ first three opponents – none of which were Power Five teams and one was an FCS opponent – they beat by a combined 13 points (South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern). Then, the Gophers next five opponents, which were all Big Ten teams have a combined record of 17-28. So, yes it will be a challenging environment for Penn State on Saturday, but Minnesota has not faced a team with the talent or team speed of the Nittany Lions, so it’s really hard to gauge exactly how they measure up.
In my opinion, this game comes down to Penn State’s defensive front versus Minnesota’s offensive line, which is one the biggest in all of college football. It boasts an offensive front that averages over 340 pounds per player and features a mammoth right tackle in 400-pounder Daniel Faalele. The Gophers love to run the football and love to eat up clock. They rank sixth in the country in time of possession and running back Rodney Smith is averaging 111 yards per game with seven touchdowns. As a team, Minnesota is averaging 205 yards per game on the ground. Quarterback Tanner Morgan has been able to take advantage of the Gophers ground game in the play action passing game, throwing for 1,761 yards with 18 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Think of Iowa offensively when thinking of the Gophers offense. Stopping the run will be the key to this game for Penn State.
Luckily for the Nittany Lions, they boast one of the best run defenses in all of college football, ranking second in the country, giving up just 68 yards per game on the ground and an FBS best 1.99 yards per carry. Because the Nittany Lions have been able to stop the run, they’ve also been able to get pressure on the quarterback in obvious passing situations, collecting 30 sacks on the season (3.75 per game) and 8.4 tackles per loss per game. I think Penn State’s front seven will force the Gophers to depend on the passing game in this one, which is something they haven’t had to do much this season, which could spell trouble for them. Minnesota has not seen a defensive front with this much length and this much speed.
Minnesota statistically boasts a tough defense of its own, ranking 13th in the country in total defense, but it has not played many if any explosive offenses. The Nittany Lions may lack consistency at times offensively, but they have been explosive. Sophomore first-year starting quarterback Sean Clifford has over 20 passes of 20 or more yards, and his top target, KJ Hamler, has been one of the most electrifying players in all of college football this season, averaging almost 17 yards per catch with eight touchdowns. The Nittany Lions must run the football well enough to keep Minnesota off balance, and with dynamic power freshman running back Noah Cain banged up, that could make things a little more difficult than usual, so keep an eye on that. But with the combination of Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth (three touchdown catches in last game), I think the Penn State offense will be too much for the Gophers.
Las Vegas has Penn State as a 6.5-point favorite.
For the Nittany Lions to keep winning, they will need to keep playing complimentary football. The play of the offensive line, defensive line and quarterback have all been very good, and coupled with this team’s natural athleticism and speed, what you get is an 8-0 record. I have seen nothing over the past few weeks that leads me to believe Penn State can’t do that this week against a Minnesota team that just hasn’t played even one good football team.
My pick is: Penn State 34, Minnesota 17.