Penn State Looks for Upset Win on the Road Against Minnesota
The Penn State Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2) are looking for back-to-back conference wins for the first time this year after beating Illinois in overtime last Saturday, 24-17. The team heads to Minnesota this weekend to take on the Golden Gophers (7-2, 3-2) in what is set to be a tough matchup for Penn State against one of the biggest surprises in college football this season.
Minnesota’s biggest strength this year has been its running game, which is 20th in the nation with 221.1 yards per game. Running back David Cobb leads the way for the offense with 803 yards and six touchdowns on the ground.
Freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner, who has taken the back seat in the team’s two-quarterback system, is an integral part in the run game. Leidner has rushed for 381 yards and seven touchdowns. Those numbers are impressive considering how limited his playing time has been behind sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson.
Nelson got off to a slow start this year, throwing two touchdowns and four interceptions in Minnesota’s first five games. The team went 4-1 during that stretch, but Nelson struggled against mediocre opponents. When Big Ten play rolled around, Nelson’s game began to improve. In the last three games of conference play, Nelson has six touchdowns through the air, two on the ground, and has not turned the ball over.
With a passing attack that is catching up with the run game, Minnesota is becoming a more dangerous team. The Nittany Lions have been suspect on defense, both in the trenches against the run and in the secondary against the pass. The unit looked better last week, especially in the secondary, which has improved with Adrian Amos moving back to cornerback, a position he says that he feels much more comfortable playing.
The pass defense should hold up fairly well, but the front seven will have a harder time against one of the best rushing attacks it has faced all season. Against teams with similar offenses that feature strong running backs and mobile quarterbacks like Ohio State and Michigan, the Nittany Lions had trouble slowing down the opposition. Michigan quarterback Devin Gardner ran for 121 yards against the Nittany Lions, while the Buckeyes’ run game totaled a whopping 408 yards on the ground two weeks ago.
The good news is that Penn State’s offense should have an easier time in Saturday’s matchup. Minnesota isn’t a bad defensive team, but it allows 142.2 yards rushing per game and 241.7 yards passing. Bill Belton has hit his stride at running back, topping 200 yards on the ground last week against Illinois. With the offensive line blocking better in recent weeks, the run game should get off the ground early and allow Christian Hackenberg to open things up in the pass game.
Let’s take a look at some Minnesota players worth keeping an eye on.
Ra’Shede Hageman #99 — Hageman is arguably best player on the Gophers and an absolute force on the defensive line. Minnesota’s nose tackle is 6-6 and weighs 311 pounds. Hageman is rated as the best defensive tackle in the 2014 NFL Draft and is projected to be a first or second round pick.
The offensive line will have its hands full on Saturday with Hagemen lining up across from them. He only has 28 tackles this season, but nine are for a loss including two sacks. Hageman also has an interception and a forced fumble. He will get into the backfield Saturday, but it’s a matter of slowing him down as much as possible and limiting the damage he is capable of doing.
Philip Nelson #9 & Mitch Leidner #7 — The Nittany Lions tried the two-quarterback system under Joe Paterno in his last years, going with the hot hand and switching between Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden from one possession to the next. It didn’t work. For Minnesota, the offense has seen success under a similar system this season. Leidner has been primarily used in a running role in the last three games as Nelson has looked better throwing the ball, but Nelson is dangerous on the ground and has done well in a read-option role. The offense is hard to defend and a lot of it has to do with the team’s versatile quarterback duo.
David Cobb #27 — Minnesota’s junior running back is having a great season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry as he has rushed the ball 148 times for 803 yards and six scores. Cobb has surpassed the century-mark in four games this season, and enters Saturday on a hot streak with 103, 138, and 188 yards in his last three games. The Gophers like to mix it up in the run game, but Cobb will certainly be a major factor for Minnesota’s offense come game time.
With that, here are some things to watch for from the Nittany Lions:
Bill Belton — It seems that Bill O’Brien has recognized the talent he has in Belton in recent weeks. With Zach Zwinak’s fumbling issues hurting his stock and Akeel Lynch nursing an MCL sprain suffered against Ohio State, Belton is going to get a lot of work against Minnesota. The Gophers don’t have a great run defense, but they will be a test for Belton and the offensive line.
The front seven — Penn State’s defensive line and linebackers have been hit or miss this season. Against Michigan, Gardner burned the unit, but running back Fitzgerald Toussaint averaged just one yard per carry. Can DaQuan Jones, Deion Barnes, and the rest of the Nittany Lions front seven buckle down and take care of business against the 20th best rushing attack in America? It’s going to be a challenge and the unit will need to play nearly perfect to stop Minnesota.
It won’t be easy, but you can’t count the Nittany Lions out against Minnesota. The Gophers and a respectable and well-rounded team, but this is anyone’s game if Hackenberg and the Penn State offense can get going and put some points on the board.
By the Numbers: The Gophers have just nine passing touchdowns this season, but have scored on the ground 21 times. The key to the game might just be whether or not the Nittany Lions can slow down Nelson, Leidner, and Cobb.
Blast from the Past: Penn State last faced Minnesota in 2010 with Matt McGloin and Rob Bolden combining for three touchdown passes in a 33-21 victory on the road. McGloin had his first career completion in the game after Bolden went down with an injury. That first completion was a 42-yard touchdown pass to Derek Moye. D’Anton Lynn led the defense with a career-high ten tackles and a clutch interception. Historically, the Nittany Lions are 8-4 against the Golden Gophers.