The Minnesota Golden Gophers led the Penn State Nittany Lions 13-3 at halftime before a third quarter collapse allowed Joe Paterno’s former team to score 17 unanswered points and take the lead, 20-13. The Gophers would tie it up with a Shannon Brooks touchdown in the fourth quarter before taking the lead on a field goal with a minute left in the game. The Nittany Lions were able to tie it up on a field goal of their own in the final seconds and then take Minnesota into overtime, where a Saquon Barkley touchdown sealed the win for Penn State.
The Nittany Lions proceeded to seize the Governor’s Victory Bell from the Gophers’ sideline, effectively emptying Minnesota’s trophy case.
The first quarter was a defensive struggle between two Big Ten teams. Minnesota and Penn State exchanged punts before a 23-yard run by Barkley put the Nittany Lions in Gopher territory. But Penn State couldn’t covert on on 4th and 2 at the Minnesota 28, and the Gophers responded with a 53-yard drive capped by a 37-yard field goal by Emmit Carpenter. Minnesota would lead Penn State 3-0 at the end of the first quarter.
But on the ensuing drive, Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley escaped the pocket to find wide receiver DeAndre Thompkins for a 53-yard gain down the sideline. This would be the first of many plays in which the Gophers’ defensive line would fail to pressure or contain McSorley, allowing him to extend the play with his legs and take advantage of a vulnerable Minnesota secondary. The Gopher defense bent but did not break, forcing the Nittany Lions to kick a field goal at the 1-yard line to tie the score.
In the second quarter, Mitch Leidner led the first touchdown drive of the game, firing a bullet to Drew Wolitarsky in the red zone for a nine-yard touchdown pass and a 10-3 lead over Penn State. The Gopher defense would hold the Nittany Lions to 18 yards on their next drive, leaving enough time on the clock for Leidner to drive the offense down the field to extend the lead to 13-3 with a 35-yard field goal from Carpenter. That last drive of the first half began at the Minnesota 7 thanks to a holding penalty, but the Gophers executed their two minute offense to near perfection, marching 70 yards in one minute and 12 seconds.
The Gophers headed to the locker room with all of the game’s momentum. The defense had limited McSorley to 95 passing yards, with 53 of those yards coming on one pass. More impressive was the fact that the Minnesota defense had limited Penn State running back Saquon Barkley to 50 yards on 14 carries.
Then the third quarter happened. On the Nittany Lions’ second drive of the half, McSorley again escaped the pocket and found wide receiver Irvin Charles, who blew past a poor tackle attempt by Kunle Ayinde and sprinted 80 yards for a touchdown that brought the crowd at Beaver Stadium back to life. With their lead cut to 13-10, the Gophers went three and out on offense, handing the ball back to McSorley, who would fire a 36-yard pass to Chris Codwin to put the Nittany Lions at the Minnesota 6. The defense was able to hold them to a 27-yard field goal, but the game was tied 13-13 and the Gophers’ 10-point haltime lead had been erased.
But Penn State wasn’t done. The Gopher offense stalled again, failing to capitalize on a targeting penalty committed against Leidner. The Nittany Lions took the ball and gashed the Gopher defense yet again with a 53-yard pass from McSorley to tight end Mike Gesicki. McSorley would reach the end zone on a six-yard scramble to give the Nittany Lions their first lead of the game, 20-13.
The Gophers responded, but not before linebacker Jaylen Waters would be ejected for a late hit on Penn State kicker Joey Julius on the ensuing kickoff. With Penn State holding all of the momentum, the Minnesota offense marched down the field for 87 yards, capped by a 37-yard touchdown run by Shannon Brooks to tie the score at 20.
The Nittany Lions would go three and out on their next drive, allowing the Gophers the opportunity to take the lead. Leidner was 4-for-4 through the air, bringing the Minnesota offense to the Penn State 12 before an underthrown pass to the corner of the end zone was intercepted by Jordan Smith. Penn State would not score on the ensuing drive, but it was a missed opportunity for the Gophers.
The Gophers would take a 23-20 lead with a minute left on the clock after driving down to the Penn State 19 for a 37-yard field goal by Carpenter. But a miraculous 20-yard catch by Godwin on third down and a back-breaking 26-yard run by McSorley put the Nittany Lions at the Minnesota 22. Penn State kicker Tyler Davis would hit a 40-yard field goal to send the game into overtime knotted at 23-23.
The Gophers’ overtime possession consisted of a 1-yard run by Rodney Smith, a sack, and an incomplete pass, culminating in another Carpenter field goal. But it was all for naught, as Barkley ran 25 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the Nittany Lions’ overtime possession, giving Penn State a 29-26 lead and the victory.
McSorley finished the game with 335 passing yards and 73 rushing yards, outgaining Barkley as the team’s leading rusher. The Gophers, without sensational freshman defensive end Tai’yon Devers, weren’t able to collect a single sack. As a result, McSorley was able to escape the pocket, extend plays, and rush for huge gains. With no pressure from the Gopher defensive line, McSorley was able to pick apart a Minnesota secondary hurt by suspensions. It was ultimately a tale of two halves, as the defense played lights out in the first half before completely collapsing in the second half.
The Gopher offense played well enough to win, with Smith and Brooks combining for 204 rushing yards and one touchdown. Leidner was 24-for-40 for 241 passing yards and one touchdown, with his biggest mistake coming on that fourth quarter interception. Wide receivers Brian Smith (7 receptions, 101 receiving yards) and Drew Wolitarsky (7 receptions, 69 receiving yards, 1 touchdown) both had big games. The offensive line continued to be inconsistent in run blocking and protecting Leidner in pass protection, allowing their second sack of the season in overtime. I suppose you can’t complain about two sacks in four games though.
The big picture: This one hurts, no question. The Gophers blew a 10-point lead on the road with a chance to retain the Governor’s Victory Bell and head back to Minneapolis with a 1-0 record in the Big Ten. But is the season over? Far from it. This was more of a must-win for Penn State than it was for Minnesota (you’re welcome, James Franklin). It’s a setback, but not one that the Gophers can’t overcome. Big Ten West contenders Iowa and Wisconsin also suffered losses on Saturday — with Nebraska the lone unbeaten in the division — and the schedule ahead is built for the Gophers to contend for a division title if they can take advantage. To do that, though, Minnesota has a lot of work to do, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They just took a punch to the gut. How they respond will determine the course of their season. The Gophers can get back on track with a win over Iowa on Saturday.