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A Friday Preview of Nittany Zombies - Minnesota v. Penn State - October 17, 2009

Minnesota enters Zombie Nation fresh off a satisfying 35-20 Homecoming victory over Purdue. Last week I said Purdue was the best 1-4 team in college football. Forget that. Purdue is a terrible team. However, I've made enough hay at this site criticizing Brewster's coaching, his hires, and his recruits. I want to give Brewster credit. The team played tough, played a fundamentally sound game in a cold, gritty environment, and most importantly, they did what i said they should do. Don't believe me? Read from last week's preview:

I don't think Danny Hope is settled in as coach (he has the whiff of 2007 Brewster to him - not vintage yet and should be put back in the cellar for ripening). Fisch just needs to play the statistics, the angles, the mix of rushing and Decker, and get to 27 points. Ultimately, Purdue will screw up in some facet of the game - to not do so would belie their performances the last month. The Gophers have comparable talent to Purdue - they should be able to wait out Purdue's mistakes and plod to an unconvincing win, which fortunately counts just as much as a curb-stomping.

So, obviously someone over in Bierman is paying attention. Good. Well done, and way to get a solid victory.

Now the fun starts.

Earlier this summer TDG ran a series of previews detailing the 12 matchups comprising the Gophers' 2009 football regular season. On July 21, 2009, my glorious preview of the Penn State game made it to press here at TDG. Before getting into the meat of my preview today, I want to touch again on how TDG brings you cutting edge analysis and breakdowns unlike anywhere else in the Gopher football universe.

Back in July (and by the way, notice I predicted Minnesota should be 4-2 going into the Penn State game, huzzah), I touched upon what I thought was a weakness in Penn State's team - the special teams:

One additional point bears mentioning regarding PSU's special teams. The youngest and most inexperienced areas of Penn State's team are their wideouts and defensive backfield. Kickoff return teams normally field some reserve players from these units. As the starters for Penn State are younger, the backups are even younger. Troy Stoudermire should be able to exploit these players' inexperience and youth and have some big returns at Beaver Stadium.

The comments section of my glorious post found people actually willing to argue the point with me:

Special Teams is actually a unit I haven’t heard any PSU fan expressing concern about. Guys like Gerald Hodges, Bani Gbadyu, Andrew Dailey, Chris Colasanti, Nate Stupar are all excellant (sp) talents who could be starting, but will once again be taking the frustrations out on the coverage teams – these guys know how to get down the field and tackle.

Well, on Tuesday, we had Black Shoe Diaries in to talk about their favorite team from Happy Valley. Wouldn't you know what came up:

BSD - Penn State is playing a lot of young players on special teams this year. Normally your coverage teams consist of a lot of second string linebackers and safeties...or in other words, guys who know how to tackle. But Penn State is thin in the secondary due to years of poor recruiting, and they are thin at linebacker due to injuries. So now when I look at the coverage teams I see a lot of backup running backs and true freshmen. So early in the year it took a few shoe string tackles to keep Temple and Syracuse from returning kickoffs for touchdowns. They've made a lot of improvement since then, but they're still not great. They're good at filtering the play inside and stopping it, but not before they give up a 30 yard return. Minnesota should be able to get some good returns on kickoffs.

+1 to TDG.

Onto the preview.  On Thursday night I listened to Tim Brewster's radio show on WCCO. It was basically a 60-minute recruitment advertisement, as it should be. Offensive line coach and "run game coordinator" Tim Davis also was on the show in a clear sell job for Seantrel Henderson. Two things the coaches said really stuck in my mind, one relevant to recruiting (and not relevant to this game), and one relevant to Penn State:

(1) Brewster talked up Fisch and Davis's coaching ability and the entire staff's NFL background, saying that every guy they sign should have the NFL as their goal, and that they have the ability to get these kids to "The League." Again, another reason why I don't get the coaching staff's recruitment philosophy. 13 of Minnesota's 20 recruits either had their only BCS offer from Minnesota, or had Minnesota and Purdue only (2). They obviously believe they can coach up these kids.

(2) Davis said specifically that they've been watching film on Penn State this week, and that Penn State hasn't changed what they've done offensively since Davis worked for Wisconsin.

So I checked my history. Galen Hall was brought in as Penn State's OC after the 2004 season, installing what evolved into the Spread HD offense. Tim Davis left Wisconsin after the 2001 season. I hope Davis has current film on the NIttany Lions.

You're going to get quite a bit of the Penn State perspective on this game by looking at GN's conversation with Black Shoe Diaries, both done here and the one GN did at BSD.

You've read about the special teams above, and you know that Minnesota should hold a significant advantage in special teams. Let's look at a few other statistical measures that could tilt the game Saturday:

(1) Penn State's rushing defense v. Duane Bennett, DeLeon Eskridge and Kevin Whaley (and Hoese, Salomon, etc.) - PSU ranks eighth nationally in rushing defense. Minnesota ranks 99th in rushing offense (TIM DAVIS C'MON). Let's keep in mind a couple things: first, Penn State's defense is skewed by having played 5 soup cans and Iowa in a rainstorm, and second, Minnesota has that lowly-ranked rushing attack despite 207 yards against Purdue. Egads. My guess: Minnesota rushes for about 130 yards with one touchdown.

(2) Penn State's scoring defense v. Minnesota's offense - Penn State has given up 10.2 ppg, and under 9 ppg at home. Minnesota is averaging about 30 ppg on the road, and 27 ppg for the season. With a clear sky, I would expect the Gophers to get about 24-27 points. We'll talk more about Mother Nature later.

(3) Let's quantify the punt and kick return games - Minnesota is 7th and 12th nationally in punt and kick return yards, respectively. Penn State is 65th and 93rd on punt and kick defense. Advantage, again, Minnesota, pending Mother Nature.

(4) Penn State getting sacks - Penn State is 7th nationally with 3.33 sacks per game, while Minnesota is 93rd giving up 2.5 sacks. State's front seven is stacked, with Navorro Bowman, Jared Odrick, Sean Lee (if healthy and playing), and others. This could be a problem - there's only so many ways to stop Penn State's D-line without committing 7 or 8 to block.

(5) The Collado factor - Penn State is third nationally in third-down conversions (55%). Minnesota is 112th in stopping teams on third down (48.4%). Beware the nickel scenarios, Gophers.

Finally, weather? Yes, weather. Have a look for yourself - cold, snowy, and in the 30s. What does that mean? Fumbles, conservative playcalling, and defense. The grass will cut up in Beaver Stadium. Linebackers. Importantly, this could test what is considered the nation's best student section to stay involved and loud for the entire game. And let's hope they can't, because Zombie Nation (and the accompanying "We. Are. Penn. State.") is easily becoming the most obnoxious college football audio experience this side of Fight On (USC - check NBC Saturday for your fill).

So, what do we think? We're Penn State's homecoming opponents, which is their letdown alert #1. Penn State plays at Michigan next Saturday, which is letdown alert #2. Potentially bad weather sets up letdown alert #3. The possibility of backbreaking special teams plays is letdown alert #4. Finally, I called this game for Minnesota back in July - letdown alert #5. While I'm not backing down now, I am revising the score due to potential weather. Fact is, Eric Decker is unplayable for defensive backs, Minnesota gets Cedric McKinley back on the D-line, and Minnesota's front seven will be playing an incredibly makeshift Penn State O-Line. Minnesota needs to shorten the game and play with focus. If so, well, my mind hasn't changed since July - Minnesota will win this game.

Minnesota 20 - Penn State 13.