Staff Predictions: Penn State vs. Minnesota
It’s almost time for another football Saturday for the Penn State Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2). The team will travel to Minnesota to face off against the Golden Gophers (7-2, 3-2) tomorrow afternoon. The Gophers have been a surprise success story in the Big Ten this season, riding a run game ranked 20th in the nation to a solid record despite playing without head coach Jerry Kill for the last month. Here are our staff predictions for tomorrow’s noon kickoff.
Penn State 27, Minnesota 24
It goes against everything that I know about football and everything that I know about these two teams, but I think that the Nittany Lions can pull off the upset on the road against an impressively strong Minnesota team.
The Gophers are a well-rounded squad with a solid defense and one the best and versatile run games in the country. The burden in this game is on Penn State’s front seven, a unit that has been on a roller coaster ride all season long. If it can slow down running back David Cobb, and mobile quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner, it will be Penn State’s game to lose.
Then again, that all depends on how Christian Hackenberg plays. Penn State’s freshman quarterback has struggled on the road this season. Minnesota doesn’t exactly boast the most intimidating environment in college football, but a road game is a road game.
Bill Belton might need to pick up where he left off in his 201-yard performance against Illinois last Saturday to bail out the offense. If the offense can play turnover-free football and the defense can at the very least slow Minnesota’s run game, the Nittany Lions will be able to head back to State College as the victors.
Penn State 31, Minnesota 27
I’m being a total homer with this pick, because when I look at the two teams in an unbiased way, I don’t see how Penn State can come out with a win.
The team is a nuisance on offense. While they struggle to throw the ball — Minnesota’s quarterbacks have combined to throw nine touchdowns and five interceptions with a 56.7 completion percentage, and the team’s 1,308 passing yards are last in the Big Ten — the Golden Gophers shred teams on the ground. Running backs David Cobb and Rodrick Williams Jr. have combined for 1,135 yards and nine touchdowns, while quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner have combined for 676 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota isn’t outstanding, but the unit is disciplined and smart. While it probably won’t force interceptions or fumbles, it knows exactly what it needs to do against Penn State’s pass-happy offense.
If Penn State wins this game, it’ll need the defense to not shoot itself in the foot with turnovers and dumb mistakes, a strong game for Bill Belton, and Allen Robinson to continue doing that thing where he’s better at football than everyone else. Luckily, I think all three of those things happens. While I don’t think Minnesota’s rushing game gets shut down, I think it’s somewhat contained, and Penn State comes out on top.
Penn State 34, Minnesota 31
On paper, this seems like it could be one of the closest games that Penn State plays this year. The Nittany Lions are a good team coming off of a close win, facing an equally good Minnesota team that has been exceeding expectations, winning its last three games. The Golden Gophers are slowly being recognized for their surprising season and will be a tough opponent.
The deciding factor for me is that Penn State has proven it can compete late. TCF Bank Stadium is no Beaver Stadium or Horseshoe. The home field advantage is virtually non-existent and while Penn State has proven to be bad on the road, losing a fourth game at this point in the season just seems unlikely.
The fact that Minnesota is not a very good passing team sits very well with me, and even though I think that it logically looks like Minnesota should get this one, I just can’t see Penn State losing unless Minnesota can get its passing game going. This game could go either way, but I think Penn State pulls it off.
Minnesota 21, Penn State 17
I don’t know what to make of this Gophers team. They’ve upset then 23rd-ranked Nebraska and defeated the Hoosiers at Indiana, but given the weakness of the Big Ten this year, I’m not sure how significant those victories really are.
What I do know is that Christian Hackenberg has yet to win a conference game on the road, and while I’m not prepared to say that he’s regressed with every game he’s played, he certainly hasn’t improved. If the offense plays as sloppily as it did against Illinois — or if Belton doesn’t manage to carry the offense on his own — I’m predicting a road loss for the Nittany Lions.
As for Penn State’s defense, I’m not even going to try to predict how they play. Defending a hapless Illini offense at home is one thing; stopping a balanced and talented Minnesota attack is another. I’m just hoping it’s not too ugly.
Penn State 31, Minnesota 28
If Penn State gets ahead early this week, they can’t pull back like they did against Illinois. This one can go either way dependent on what Penn State team we see, but I think that the Nittany Lions can squeak this one out.
Penn State’s passing offense took a step back last week, with Christian Hackenberg showing almost no improvement. Bill O’Brien may start Hackenberg off with a few short passes to get his confidence up on the road to try to even up the offensive threats. To me, Bill Belton is the difference maker in this one. If he can break through the Minnesota defensive line and get past linebacker Aaron Hill, Minnesota’s leading tackler, look for him to have another great week.
On defense, Penn State might have trouble with Gophers’ quarterback Philip Nelson, who can also run the ball. Nelson is coming off a Big Ten Co-Offensive Player of the Week award and has played well against both Northwestern and Nebraska already this year. If the Nittany Lions can stop Nelson from hurting them both in the air and on the ground, they’ll be able to survive the Gophers.