Well, that sucked.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers led 13-3 at halftime but ended up suffering a gut-wrenching 29-26 overtime loss to the Penn State Nittany Lions on Saturday. The Gophers looked like they would escape State College with a solid Big Ten road win after an impressive first half, but a third quarter collapse ultimately opened the door for the Nittany Lions to send the Gophers back to Minneapolis with a devastating loss.
Let’s take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly -- emphasis on the ugly.
Emmit Carpenter. Gopher fans were skeptical when the coaching staff decided to shift Ryan Santoso to punter and insert Carpenter as the starting kicker. But Carpenter has silenced his doubters. Coming into the game, Carpenter was 5-for-5 on field goal attempts. Against Penn State, he was 4-for-4, including two potential game winners at the end of regulation and at the end of the Gophers’ overtime possession. If not for Carpenter, the Gophers would have left plenty more points on the field.
Antoine Winfield, Jr. It says a lot about Winfield, a freshman, that Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley had more success throwing the ball against Jalen Myrick, a senior, and Antonio Shenault, a sophomore. Winfield earned the start at nickelback and finished the game with eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and a pass break-up. That pass break-up came on a third down stop on the Nittany Lions’ first drive of the game. If his strong performance on Saturday was a preview of what is to come, Winfield will have a very promising career as a Gopher.
The run defense. Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley was essentially a non-factor until overtime. Before his game-winning 25-yard touchdown run in overtime, Barkley rushed for 38 yards on 19 carries through the first four quarters. The Gophers’ defensive front was exceptional at identifying the run and often met Barkley in the backfield. Before the wheels came off the bus in overtime, the Gophers had effectively smothered Barkley, which is no small feat.
Brian Smith. The walk-on wide receiver from Milwaukee continues to be a top target in the passing game, hauling in seven receptions for 101 yards. Drew Wolitarsky has stepped into KJ Maye’s role as the go-to receiver on offense, but Smith has also been a consistent contributor in the passing game with Rashad Still sidelined with an injury.
Failing to score on offense. The Gopher offense was only able to find the end zone twice against a Penn State defense decimated by injuries. They squandered one scoring opportunity with an interception in the end zone and had to settle for three field goals on three other occasions. That is not going to cut it in the Big Ten, especially when your defense is struggling. The Gophers finished with 228 rushing yards, but even that number becomes less impressive when you consider that Penn State allowed more than 300 rushing yards to both Pittsburgh and Michigan.
The offensive line. I’m still not quite sure what to make of this unit. The line has allowed two sacks through the first four games, but I don’t know how much of that is Mitch Leidner being able to escape pressure and get the rid of the ball. Leidner didn’t have a lot of time to throw against Penn State, as the pocket was often collapsing around him. The Gophers are also averaging 228 rushing yards per game, but how much of that is Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks barreling through the line and often making something out of nothing? The line has been frustratingly inconsistent in pushing back the defensive line and opening up holes for the running backs. I have yet to see the toughness and attitude Gopher fans were promised when Bart Miller was hired as the offensive line coach in the offseason.
The pass rush. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: The Gophers failed to pressure or contain the quarterback when rushing four defensive linemen. Zero sacks against Penn State. McSorley rushed for 73 yards on eight carries in large part because the defensive line couldn’t lay a hand on him, frequently allowing him to escape the pocket. I understand strip sack specialist Tai’yon Devers was out with an injury, but I find it hard to believe that the Gophers can’t find another effective pass rusher. Jeff Phelps has been the Gophers’ defensive line coach for the last six years, but I have no idea what he has been doing during those six years because the defensive line has been the weak link on defense since the Jerry Kill regime arrived. The Gophers will face another mobile quarterback against Iowa with CJ Beathard under center, which does not bode well for a defensive line that has largely been ineffective.
The secondary. Cornerbacks KiAnte Hardin and Ray Buford have been suspended for three games now, and I have no idea if or when they’ll see the field again this season. That is the reality for the Gophers, who are left searching for answers in the defensive backfield after getting torched for 335 passing yards against Penn State. The lack of a pass rush is a contributing factor, but the secondary also shoulders the blame. Not even senior cornerback Jalen Myrick has been immune to the huge chunks of yardage the Gophers have allowed through the air. This is the first Jay Sawvel-coached secondary to allow 300 yards passing since the 2014 season opener against Eastern Illinois. If Sawvel can’t fix this secondary — with or without Hardin and Buford — the Gopher defense will be in for a long season. Your move, coach.
The Gophers’ trophy case. It’s now completely empty, as the Nittany Lions stormed the Gophers’ sidelined and seized the Governor’s Victory Bell after their overtime victory. But the Gophers will have a chance to rectify this on Saturday against Iowa, with the Floyd of Rosedale returning to Minneapolis. If Minnesota can’t take back the bronze pig, the Gophers’ rivalry trophy woes will continue for the foreseeable future.