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Previewing The Enemy: Penn State vs Minnesota

Penn State meets Minnesota for the first time since 2013, and we’d be lying if we didn’t say the Lions desperately need this victory. The Golden Gophers enter this weekend’s contest 3-0 coming off a relatively easy non-conference schedule. Still, this is a talented team out to prove it can compete for the Big Ten West title this year.

Let’s take a look at the challenge Penn State faces this weekend.

Minnesota Offense

Unfortunately for Penn State’s injury-plagued defense, this Golden Gophers team likes to run the ball early and often. The Gophers thrive on the ground led by Rodney Smith, who has 304 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. Expect to see the Gophers turn to him early just as Michigan did in exposing Penn State’s most glaring offensive weakness. Not to be discounted is the rushing ability of veteran quarterback Mitch Leidner, who has three scores of his own on the ground.

Through the air, Leidner averages nearly 200 per contest with 599 and four touchdowns. He’s reasonably efficient, completing 64 percent of his throws. The onus is on Penn State’s young front seven to put pressure on the Gophers’ gunslinger and prevent him from doing what Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight was able to do during his rather surgical exposing of Penn State’s second level.

Former standout tight end Maxx Williams is in the NFL, which is a relief for a Penn State team that’s struggled to cover tight ends in recent weeks. The Gophers’ most reliable receiving threat is a threat to score anytime the ball is in his hands. Drew Wolitarsky, who possesses a Jordy Nelson-esque 6-foot-3, 223 pound frame, and leads Minnesota with 17 catches for 252 yards and two scores. The next closest receiver has eight catches, with another totaling only 84 yards. Whoever matches up against him — the 6-foot-1 Christian Campbell gets my vote — has a stiff challenge ahead of them. This game should be interesting, but there’s no denying it’s a must-win for Penn State as Big Ten conference play continues.

Minnesota Defense

Defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel returns two of his top four leading tacklers from last season in linebackers Cody Poock and Jack Lynn, but similar to Penn State’s situation, the Golden Gophers are missing a handful of big contributors due to injury. Freshman defensive end Tai’yon Devers, who leads Minnesota’s defense with three sacks and three forced fumbles through three games, will not suit up Saturday. Linebackers Carter Coughlin and Nick Rallis, as well as defensive backs Coney Durr, Alex Starks, and Ace Rogers are not listed on the depth chart this week, either, after going down with injuries of their own.

However, Minnesota’s starting front seven is still going to be a handful for the Nittany Lion offensive line, as linebacker Jonathan Celestin is the smallest of a massive group at 6-foot-1, 220 pounds. Defensive end Gaelin Elmore, who checks in at 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, should give Penn State’s offensive tackles (Brendan Mahon and Andrew Nelson) fits with his pass rushing of the edge. Senior corner Jalen Myrick finished second among the Golden Gophers with three interceptions last fall and is a threat in both aspects of the return game.

The youngest starter for the Golden Gopher defense lines up opposite Myrick, as true sophomore corner Antonio Shenault is part of a veteran-led group that will try to slow down Penn State’s top receivers just like Michigan did last week. Graduate senior safety Damarius Travis hauled in Minnesota’s only pick and is second on the defense with 16 total tackles, behind only Lynn, who’s racked up 22 thus far.

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