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Minnesota Football vs Penn State: The Elite, The Meh, and The Ugly

Not a good day to be a Gopher doubter

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

If you’re reading this after waking up the Sunday morning after the No. 17-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers’ 31-26 victory over the No. 4-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions and find yourself questioning your reality, allow me to reassure you:

It really happened.

The Gophers are for real, and the rest of the Big Ten has been served notice.

The Elite

The Gophers silenced their doubters. We heard the same tired talking points all week long. Come on, you know the words by now: “Minnesota hasn’t played anybody!” Few people had less respect for the Gophers than the College Football Playoff selection committee, who saw fit to rank unbeaten Minnesota at No. 17 behind six two-loss teams. Well, the Gophers played somebody, and I expect the committee to be singing a different tune come Tuesday. Minnesota notched the program’s first win over a Top 10 opponent since 2000, improved to 9-0 for the first time since 1904, and is now knocking on the door of a Top 10 ranking.

The Gophers’ red zone defense. The Nittany Lions’ offense made three trips inside of the Gophers’ 20-yard line. Minnesota turned them away twice and held them to a field goal once. When you consider the margin of victory, the Gophers’ stout red zone defense looks even more critical in hindsight. Obviously there was the game-saving interception in the end zone in the final minute of the game, but Penn State’s failed fourth down pass at the Minnesota 5, while trailing by 11 in the third quarter, was a huge stop for the Gopher defense.

Tanner Morgan. Never bet against Tanner Morgan after a bye week. Gopher fans have been wondering when they’d see the redshirt sophomore quarterback sling it again like he did against Purdue. Well, I think the wait was worth it. Morgan was near perfect against the Nittany Lions, completing 18 of 20 pass attempts and throwing for 339 passing yards and three touchdowns.

Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and Chris Autman-Bell. From one of our frenemies’ game prediction over at Black Shoe Diaries: “Minnesota may ride the emotional wave to a hot start, but Penn State is the far superior team talent wise.” Oh, really? I hope our friend Marty was watching as the Gophers’ inferior talent at wide receiver carved up the Nittany Lions’ secondary. Each of them had a touchdown to their name and the trio combined for all but one of the Gophers’ 339 passing yards, but the standout was Bateman. The sophomore hauled in seven receptions for 203 receiving yards, including a 66-yard touchdown that ignited the entire stadium.

Kirk Ciarrocca’s offensive game plan. In his postgame press conference, P.J. Fleck said that while the rest of the coaching staff was out on the recruiting trail, offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca was back at the office scheming for Penn State. His hard work certainly paid off, as the Gophers’ put up 31 points and 460 total yards against a Top 10 defense that came into the game allowing an average of 9.6 points per game and 280 total yards per game.

Three interceptions. Through the first eight games of the season, Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford had only thrown three interceptions. Minnesota doubled that total in one afternoon. Antoine Winfield Jr. was responsible for two of them, and the Gophers were able to convert both into touchdowns. Winfield’s first pick came on the Nittany Lions’ first drive of the game, setting the stage for a 95-yard scoring drive. His second interception stopped Penn State on third and long at the Minnesota 24 and put the Gophers in position to score three plays later on a 38-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Johnson. But the third interception, courtesy of Jordan Howden, was the best of them of all, sealing the victory for Minnesota in the final minute of play.

The Gopher fans who packed TCF Bank Stadium. By all accounts, Saturday’s sold out crowd was responsible for the best atmosphere this program has seen in years. Thank you to all of the Gopher fans who showed up to cheer the team on to victory! Come back in three weeks.

The Governor’s Victory Bell is back where it belongs. Paul Bunyan’s Axe has company.

The Meh

The Gophers’ ground game. Facing one of the best rushing defenses in the country, Minnesota’s rushing attack was average at best, grinding out 121 yards as a team and averaging three yards per carry. Even Rodney Smith barely had room to run, rushing for a season-low 51 yards on 18 carries. Had the Gophers been able to run the ball more effectively — especially in the second half, when even a couple first downs would have made a world of difference in terms of breathing room — the fourth quarter might have been less dramatic.

Shannon Brooks’ fumble. Holding a 24-13 lead, Minnesota’s defense had forced a three-and-out on Penn State’s first offensive possession of the second half and took over at midfield after the punt. The Gophers seemed poised to add to their lead until Shannon Brooks fumbled the ball away on the first play of the drive. The Nittany Lions proceeded to go 50 yards on nine plays to cut the deficit to 24-19. It was a self-inflicted wound that helped keep Penn State in the game.

The Ugly

The missed delay of game penalty. The fourth quarter touchdown that allowed the Nittany Lions to make it a one possession game should have been wiped out by a delay of game penalty. As you can see below, the ball was snapped at least a full second after the play clock expired. The officiating crew must have been asleep at the wheel.