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Missteps Bury Penn State In 24-10 Loss To Minnesota

The Penn State defense played one great half and the Penn State offense played one decent half, but the Nittany Lions simply could not put it together on Saturday against Minnesota as they fell 24-10 on the road to drop to 5-4 on the season with a 2-3 conference record.

From poor coaching decisions to player miscues on the field, Penn State simply looked outmatched against the Golden Gophers, who go to 8-2 with a 4-2 conference record with the victory.

The Nittany Lions looked off from the very first play of the game as Bill Belton fumbled the snap and gave Minnesota the ball with great field position. The defense didn’t let up a first down, but a field goal gave the Gophers a 3-0 lead in the blink of an eye.

The Nittany Lions failed to pick up a first down on their second possession before the defense allowed Minnesota to advance 96 yards on 15 plays before running back David Cobb scored on a one-yard run to make it 10-0. The drive was a perfect example of what the Gophers offense has done best this season: control the clock with slow, decisive scoring drives.

That was the case for the entire game as Minnesota kept the Nittany Lions’ defense on the field for 35 minutes and change. A tired Penn State defense could not keep up in the first half. Penn State did cut the lead to 10-7 at the end of the first quarter on a six-yard Zach Zwinak run, but that didn’t last long.

After taking a back seat to Belton over the last month or so, Zwinak had a coming back party of sorts on Saturday as he rushed for 150 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, taking back primary ball-carrying duties after fumbling issues relegated him to the bench.

But while the run game got going, the pass game never followed and defense showed up too late. Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson ran untouched for a six-yard touchdown early in the second quarter to go ahead 17-7. The Nittany Lions looked to be moving the ball well on a drive towards the end of the first half, but the offense stalled and Sam Ficken nailed a 27-yard field goal that made it 17-10. A Philip Nelson touchdown pass to tight end Maxx Williams ended the scoring on the day before halftime at 24-10.

The Penn State offense drove deep into Minnesota territory twice in the second half, but turned the ball over on downs once and gave it away once. Hackenberg misfired on four straight red zone pass attempts the first time and later fumbled the snap on the one-yard line late in the fourth quarter to put a dagger in the Nittany Lions’ chances.

The defense finally showed up in the second half after failing to hold Minnesota scoreless on each of its four first half possessions. John Butler’s unit was incapable of making big stops when needed in the first two quarters, allowing seemingly easy passes over the middle on more than one third-and-long. When the defense did hold off the Gophers on third down, they converted on fourth.

Penn State allowed 9-of-17 third down attempts from Minnesota and 3-of-3 fourth down attempts. The second half was a different story as Minnesota punted on four drives and fumbled on another.

The offense was equally bad, converting only one third down in the game on nine tries and 1-of-3 fourth down tries. Christian Hackenberg had just 66 yards after three quarters of play before adding 97 in the fourth quarter to finish 14-for-25 with 163 yards. He looked off throughout the game as his accuracy was uncharacteristically sloppy.

But as much as Hackenberg looked off, the coaching on offense looked worse. Bill O’Brien made questionable decisions throughout the game. His defense was struggling to hold off Minnesota, his run game looked great, and yet Sam Ficken took the field on a 4th-and-1 from the Minnesota nine-yard line with late in the first half. A touchdown would have made the score 17-14 in favor Minnesota. Instead, the field goal was Penn State’s final scoring play of the game.

There was a series of plays early in the fourth quarter where O’Brien called four consecutive passes from the Minnesota 16-yard line, including two straight fades to the end zone. With Hackenberg struggling to complete passes and Zwinak running like he did late last season, the play calls made little sense.

The fact of the matter is that Minnesota is the better team and that showed on the football field. Between a lack of player leadership, an inexperienced coaching staff, a young team, and a sanction-induced deficit of talent, the Nittany Lions simply can’t compete against teams like the Gophers unless everything goes nearly perfect. That wasn’t the case on Saturday afternoon.

Game notes:

  • Allen Robinson broke the Penn State single-season receiving yards record in the game, hauling in seven balls for 63 yards. He now has 1,106 yards on the year.
  • Zach Zwinak’s last touchdown came against Kent State on September 21. He also hadn’t surpassed 72 yards since that game, more than doubling that number with his 150 yards against Minnesota. Zwinak’s 26 carries were his most of the season, as was his 150 yardage total.
  • Minnesota’s David Cobb burned the Nittany Lions for 139 yards on 27 carries. The Gophers totaled 195 rushing yards in the game.
  • The stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story in this game as Penn State had 353 yards of offense to Minnesota’s 381. The Gophers had five penalties while the Nittany Lions had just one. Penn State had three more first downs in the game. The score certainly does not reflect those numbers.
  • Penn State has not yet won a road game this season unless you count the neutral site matchup against Syracuse in the opener in front of a largely Penn State-dominated crowd as a road game.
  • The Nittany Lions have also yet to win back-to-back Big ten games this season. In fact, the only back-to-back victories the team had were in the first two games of the season.

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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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