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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Penn State - Opponent Preview

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The biggest game of the year (so far) is upon us

Purdue v Penn State Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

The No. 17-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers. The No. 4-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions. Both unbeaten. The Governor’s Victory Bell on the line.

Is it Saturday yet? No?

Well, hopefully this preview can hold you over until then.

Are they any good this year?

2019 Record: 8-0 (5-0, Tied-1st B1G East)
S&P+ Ranking: 7th

Yes. Very good. This is by far the best team the Gophers have faced all season.

Can they score on offense?

Penn State does not have an elite rushing attack. With no heir apparent to Miles Sanders, the Nittany Lions have leaned on a committee of freshman and sophomore running backs — Noah Cain, Journey Brown, Devyn Ford, and Ricky Slade — with mixed success. Cain and Brown are the only backs to record double-digit carries in a game this season. Cain is the team’s leading rusher with 350 yards and six touchdowns, and he might be the closest thing they have to a bell cow. When they need to grind out yards, Cain gets the call.

The Nittany Lions have had better success replacing Trace McSorley at quarterback, as sophomore Sean Clifford has been solid in his first season as starter. He has thrown for 1,931 passing yards and 20 touchdowns, with only three interceptions. Clifford has also contributed to the ground game, either on designed runs or by using his legs to extend plays when the pocket collapses and there is room to run. But his most dangerous weapons in the passing game are wide receiver K.J. Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth.

Hamler is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, and has the versatility to be both a possession receiver and a home run threat for the Nittany Lions. Here, on 3rd and 5, Hamler is lined up in the slot on the short side of the field across from freshman cornerback Daxton Hill, who is in off-man coverage. Hamler runs straight to Hill, freezes him with a stutter step, and then cuts inside on the slant for an eight-yard catch and a first down.

KJ Hamler first down

On the next very play, Hamler is in the slot on the wide side of the field, and senior safety Josh Metellus is responsible for Hamler. With a cushion of at least 10 yards, Hamler is able to get a full head of steam and blows right past Metellus for a 53-yard touchdown strike.

KJ Hamler touchdown

Penn State offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne will get creative in how he uses Freiermuth, as well. You’ll see him set up on the line of scrimmage, lined up as the H-back, and even split out at wide receiver. Against Michigan State, Freiermuth hauled in three touchdowns. His second might have been the most impressive. He lines up off the line of scrimmage, chip blocks the defensive end before his release, and then gets behind the cornerback for an over-the-shoulder catch:

Pat Freiermuth touchdown

I expect slot cornerback Chris Williamson and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. will have their hands full with Hamler, and the Gophers’ linebackers and cornerbacks will need to be conscious of where Freiermuth is on the field at all times but especially in the red zone. But Minnesota also needs to get after Clifford. Do not let him get comfortable in the pocket. The Gophers have one of the best pass defenses in the country, and if they can harass and frustrate Clifford and force the Nittany Lions to try and beat them on the ground, I like their chances.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

Nothing will come easy against the Nittany Lions’ defense. Penn State has the seventh-ranked defense in the country, according to S&P+, and are ranked second nationally in scoring defense (9.6 points per game) and rushing defense (68.4 rushing yards allowed per game).

Conversely, Minnesota will be the best offense the Penn State defense has faced all season. None of the Nittany Lions’ previous eight opponents has fielded a Top 25 offense according to S&P+, and only Maryland ranks in the Top 50 in scoring offense and the Terps are only hanging around at 47th because of the 142 points they racked up in the first two weeks of the season.

This is going to be a big game for quarterback Tanner Morgan and the Gophers’ wide receiver corps. Penn State is going to stack the box to stop Rodney Smith, and you can be certain Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca is going to want to establish a ground game. To do that, Morgan will need to loosen up the Nittany Lions’ defense through the air. The good news is that wide receivers Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman, and Chris Autman-Bell can help open things up, and the Penn State secondary may be vulnerable.

Starting slot corner Donovan Johnson has missed all but two games this season, and senior cornerback John Reid and redshirt freshman cornerback Trent Gordon were both banged up against Michigan State. Even when healthy, the Nittany Lions have had their fair share of struggles defending the pass, allowing an average of 211.6 passing yards per game.

The Gophers’ offensive line has only allowed one sack over their last four games, but Penn State’s pass rush will put their pass protection to the test. Junior defensive ends Yetur Gross-Matos and Shaka Toney and redshirt freshman Jayson Oweh have combined for 15 sacks this season and will almost certainly be pinning their ears back in pursuit of Tanner Morgan.

Michigan’s offense has had the most success against Penn State this season, nearly erasing a 21-0 first half deficit but coming up short in the end in a 28-21 loss on the road. Part of their success was owed to the Wolverine defense, which forced the Nittany Lions’ offense into three-and-outs on four of their five ensuing possessions after they took their 21-0 lead. Michigan was able to capitalize on a tired and worn down Penn State defense, slicing through stacked boxes on the ground and taking advantage of sloppy tackling in the secondary.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

Penn State has a good passing offense, and Minnesota has been great at defending the pass. Minnesota has a good rushing offense, and Penn State has been great at defending the run. To me, the tiebreaker will be the Gophers’ passing attack. They have one of the best wide receiver groups in the country and Tanner Morgan has always saved his best for when the team has needed him most. This is 100 percent a homer pick, but I have the Gophers pulling the upset and notching one of the biggest wins in program history. Minnesota 24, Penn State 20.