Five Keys To Beating Minnesota On Saturday

Penn State football continues conference play against the Minnesota Golden Gophers this Saturday. Behind the 20th best rushing offense in the nation and a respectable defense, Minnesota has a 7-2 overall record with a 3-1 Big Ten record. The Gophers have put up impressive wins, beating Nebraska two weeks ago and topping Indiana and its powerful offense on the road last Saturday.

This will certainly be one of the biggest challenges of the season for the Nittany Lions. Here are five keys for Penn State heading into Saturday’s game:

1. Run defense, run defense, and more run defense

When a team can run the ball as well as the Gophers can, this will always be a point of emphasis heading into the game. Running keeps the clock moving, and that has allowed Minnesota to control the clock and wear down opposing defenses all season long.

The team has two solid running backs in David Cobb and Rodrick Williams. Cobb is the team’s starter and has 803 yards and six touchdowns on the season. Williams has gained 332 yards and three touchdowns this year. As for the quarterback position, both sophomore Philip Nelson and freshman Mitch Leidner are talented runners.

The Gophers have gone with a two-quarterback system this season and it’s worked out well for them. Nelson is the primary passer, but Leidner does damage on the ground, carrying 81 times for 381 yards and seven touchdowns this year. Nelson has run 66 times himself for 295 yards and five touchdowns. The two runnings backs and two quarterbacks have nearly 2,000 yards between them and an outstanding 21 touchdowns.

Any chance Penn State has in this game depends on the front seven playing well. The unit has been shaky but is very solid when at its best. It will need to be group effort with contributions from DaQuan Jones and Kyle Baublitz on the inside, C.J. Olaniyan, Deion Barnes, and Anthony Zettel on the outside, and linebackers Mike Hull, Nyeem Wartman, Glenn Carson, and Stephen Obeng-Agyapong behind them.

2. Slow things down

As Bill O’Brien discussed on Tuesday at his weekly press conference, Minnesota’s ability to control the ball causes serious problems for opposing teams. If the Gophers’ offense uses the ground-and-pound to grind its way down the field, and the Penn State offense responds with either a quick score or a quick punt, the Nittany Lions will be fielding a tired defense on minimal rest.

“They average almost five minutes more than their opponents and that’s a big deal,” O’Brien said. “You can’t totally change what you do, but you better make sure that you’re not just playing at warp speed the whole game. If you score in a minute and 50 seconds, that’s okay, but your defense has only been on the bench for a minute and 50 seconds and you better make sure you keep scoring and that is hard to do against Minnesota.”

Penn State ran the ball more than usual against Illinois last week, at least more than usual by this season’s standards. Christian Hackenberg is great and Penn State will pass in the game, but with how good the offensive line has looked recently and how good Bill Belton is playing, it would be nonsensical to do anything but establish the run early and stick to it throughout the game. That allows Penn State to slow things down and essentially try to beat the Gophers at their own game.

3. Avoid missed opportunities

There were a number of times against Illinois last week when the Penn State offense would make it past midfield, only to shoot itself in the foot with an avoidable penalty or a turnover. Playing against a tough team like Minnesota that is strong on both sides of the ball, the Nittany Lions won’t be able to get away with that kind of play.

Penn State’s offense has looked anemic this season against teams with defenses that aren’t as good as the one it will face this Saturday in Minnesota. Leaving points on the board is inexcusable in conference play, and the Nittany Lions won’t be able to back into a win if they keep that up. If the offense can cut out the penalties and the coaching staff can get the unit to play more disciplined football, then Penn State is capable of winning this one.

4. The tight ends

O’Brien continually talks about how the tight end position will always be important in what he does at Penn State. We saw that on the field last season, but this year has seen a dropoff in production from tight ends. Some of that has to do with Matt Lehman and Brent Wilkerson going down for the season, but a trio of Jesse James, Kyle Carter, and Adam Breneman is still one of the best units in the nation.

After last Saturday’s game against Illinois, O’Brien mentioned that it might be time to work some new wrinkles into the offense to try and catch opponents by surprise, specifically mentioning the tight ends as one area that he will look to get more involved. It’s no secret that O’Brien loves tight ends — he came into Penn State one season after turning New England Patriots tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez into the most formidable tight end duo in NFL history.

Against Minnesota’s defense, Penn State needs to try and catch the Gophers off guard. Getting the tight ends more involved and spreading the ball a little more might be the perfect way to do that.

5. Containment

Penn State’s pass rush has been less than impressive so far this season. The defense has allowed an average of 238.5 passing yard per game, which isn’t terrible, but keep in mind that Penn State faced opponents like Syracuse, Eastern Michigan, and Kent State early in the season. In the rest of its games, Penn State has given up 287.4 yards per game through the air. There is blame to go around when the secondary hasn’t played great either, but the lack of a pass rush has allowed opposing quarterbacks plenty of time in the pocket.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing heading into the game against Minnesota. Against shifty quarterbacks like Nelson and Leidner, a pass rush can hurt you if they manage to evade it and find space on the outside. I wouldn’t expect to see the defense have one player spy them all game, but running zones that allow for containment to try and limit the run game from the quarterbacks would be in Penn State’s best interest.

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About the Author

Zach Berger

Zach Berger is a StateCollege.com reporter and Onward State's Managing Editor Emeritus. You can find him at the Phyrst more nights than not. If he had to pick a last meal, Zach would go for a medium-rare New York strip steak with a side of garlic mashed potatoes and a cold BrewDog Punk IPA. You can reach him via e-mail at [email protected] or on Twitter at @theZachBerger.

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