Ten years after upsetting the #2 ranked Nittany Lions, Minnesota had hoped for a Happy Valley 1999 redux. Instead, the Gophers were subjected to a 2009 reduction in offensive performance. While several areas of the Minnesota gameplan appeared lacking, the disparity between the play of Minnesota's offensive line and Penn State's front seven was the driving force behind the shutout. With 37 yards rushing and 7 first downs for the game, the Gophers were fortunate to have lost by only 20 points. In my Friday post previewing the game I noted:
While Penn State hasn't had a particularly difficult schedule, they are only allowing 10.2 points per game. Their mature defensive line and seasoned linebackers will probably wreak havoc on the Gopher running game.
The bottom line is that Minnesota may have a top tier corps of wide receivers, average running backs, and an average college quarterback, but their offensive line cannot stop a formidable defensive front. Without blocking, an average running game and an average passer cannot (and will not) get the job done. A team with an offensive line dominated by the defensive front is relegated to trick plays and overwhelming expectations from their defense.
While the Gopher defense kept the game close early, they understandably began to break down in the second half. Why is this understandable? Minnesota's offense was only able to maintain possession of the ball for 18 minutes of a 60 minute game. The Gopher defense was up against a big offensive line and contact-hungry backs, and they were without adequate time to catch their breath.
Having watched a great deal of college football this season, Penn State has one of the best defensive fronts in America. Some may point to Iowa having scored 20 points against Penn State, but take a closer look: 8 of those points were scored by Iowa's defense and 10 of those points came on drives starting with a short field in Penn State territory. Iowa has one of the best offensive lines in the country, and only blocked for 163 yards rushing against the Penn State defensive front. Minnesota's offensive line is far below average, so is it any surprise that Minnesota was shut out? Penn State now averages only 8.7 points allowed per game.
Moving forward, expect Minnesota's offense to have sporadic success when their offensive line is not dominated. Minnesota's running backs aren't big enough to compensate for nonexistant holes, Adam Weber is not good enough to overcome a lack of blocking, Eric Decker needs at least a few seconds to shake defenders, and the defense needs time to catch some wind on the sideline. Without blocking, a team is bound to lose badly. If just two or three top tier offensive lineman had played for Minnesota, I'll maintain that this game could have been much closer. Offensive line as it is, Minnesota never had a chance against Penn State's NFL-calibur defensive front.
While this year is half over, there is a glimmer of hope for next season. Four star offensive lineman recruit Jimmy Gjere is planning on attending Minnesota, and is one of the best tackles in the country. He might, just might be ready to contribute as a freshman. While a long shot, this year's top recruit, Seantrel Henderson, is an offensive tackle with Minnesota on his short list. Seantrel could suit up for any college team in America and contribute...tomorrow. Offensive tackle Roszell Gayden is a four star Junior College recruit who originally had committed to Minnesota. If this team could add Gjere and Gayden alone, the offensive line could be drastically improved next season. If Gopher fans' fairy tale hope for the commitment of Seantrel Henderson doesn't turn into a pumpkin, Minnesota could become one of the better offenses in the Big Ten with an offensive line transformed from no-go to go-now.
There is still an outside chance that Minnesota can make a bowl game. While there is little chance of Minnesota defeating Ohio State or Iowa, Minnesota did defeat Purdue in a convincing manner. A win against Illinois or Michigan State, along with a win against South Dakota State, would result in bowl eligibility. So wait at least three weeks before saying "Just wait 'til next year"!