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Minnesota Football: The Gophers’ red zone defense was the difference vs. Penn State

The Minnesota defense stood tall in the red zone against the Nittany Lions

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Penn State made five trips into the red zone against Minnesota last November. Two of them resulted in touchdowns, but I’d like to take a deep dive into the other three, because I believe they were ultimately the difference in the game.

1st & 10 at the Minnesota 17 - 3:22 in the 1st Quarter

Trailing 14-10 near the end of the first quarters, the Nittany Lions quickly stormed into the red zone in three plays, thanks to a 39-yard run by Journey Brown and a 23-yard pass from Sean Clifford to KJ Hamler. But after a poor start to the drive, the Gopher defense stood tall.

On first down, Clifford tries to connect again with Hamler but the pass is high and deflects off his hands as Jordan Howden arrives to ensure an incompletion.

The next play, Clifford looks again to Hamler, who is running an out route on the wide side of the field, but Benjamin St.-Juste is close in coverage. On the opposite side of the field, Jahan Dotson doesn’t even look like he is expecting the ball as he goes vertical, with Antoine Winfield Jr. waiting over the top. Pressure from Carter Coughlin ultimately forces Clifford out of the pocket and he scrambles for a seven yard gain out of bounds. Braelen Oliver does a good job of forcing him to the sideline and keeping him from getting up field.

Penn State is called for delay of game on third down, backing them up an extra five yards. Then Boye Mafe comes up big. He shifts to the edge at the last minute as a stand-up rusher and bull rushes the right tackle, forcing Clifford into throwing a pass at the feet of tight end Pat Freiermuth to bring up fourth down and limit the Nittany Lions to a field goal.

Minnesota defensive end Boye Mafe rushes quarterback Sean Clifford against Penn State

1st & Goal at the Minnesota 9 - 12:17 in the 4th Quarter

The Gophers opened the fourth quarter with a Seth Green touchdown run at the goal line to extend their lead to 31-19. Looking to respond, Penn State immediately went about gashing Minnesota’s defense, racking up first four downs in five plays en route the red zone. But — and stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Gophers refused to break.

Once inside the red zone, the Nittany Lions tried to spread Minnesota out and run it in with Devyn Ford. Here, Penn State lines up three receivers to the wide side of the field and has Freiermuth on the line scrimmage on the weak side, forcing the Gophers to respect him as a potential target as well. Ford has an initial gap between the left tackle and left guard, but Sam Renner is able to shed his block with an assist from Winfield and he stands up Ford for a two-yard gain.

Ford gets the ball again on second down and gains all of three yards, setting up 3rd and Goal at the 4. Penn State dials up a bit of misdirection, faking the jet sweep to Hamler and having Clifford run it up the gut. Unfortunately for Clifford, the Gophers are not fooled and have seven defenders in the box waiting for him. Coughlin and Jamaal Teague combine to drop him for a loss.

And then comes one of the biggest plays of the game. On 4th and Goal at the 5, the Nittany Lions line up in trips formation with three wide receivers on the wide side of the field, including Freiermuth split out in the slot with Hamler to his left. Freiermuth runs a slant to try and disrupt the defenders in coverage as Hamler runs a fade to the corner of the end zone. But Chris Williamson reads the route, breaks on Hamler’s hip, turns his head, and bats the ball out of bounds.

1st & 10 at the Minnesota 11 - 1:44 in the 4th Quarter

Now for the most stressful drive of the game.

On 1st and 10 from his own 40, with Minnesota clinging to a 31-26 lead, Clifford found Dotson open on a slant. St.-Juste, one of the Gophers’ most reliable cover corners all season, was in coverage but slipped and fell as the pass was caught, allowing Dotson to sprint 49 yards before being brought down. The Nittany Lions were set up inside the red zone, with a minimum of four plays and two minutes to gain 11 yards and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

Thomas Barber stopped Journey Brown for a minimal gain on first down, before Brown seemed to get the Nittany Lions to the goal line on the next play with an eight-yard reception. But Penn State was called for offensive pass interference, knocking them back 15 yards.

Penn State fans will tell you this was another egregious call on the part of the officiating crew that cost them the game, but I don’t know how anyone can watch the replay and not plainly see what Nittany Lions wide receiver Daniel George was doing:

Facing 2nd and 24 at the Minnesota 25, Penn State lined up in a four receiver set and tried to take a shot at the end zone, but Clifford air mailed a throw over the head of George with Winfield in coverage. He wanted to go for Freiermuth, but the Gophers blanketed him in double coverage.

Then, the play that needs no introduction:

It’s a spectacular play by Howden in the end zone, but the throw is off in part because of pressure from Coughlin. And Minnesota only rushed three defenders.

In a game decided by five points, these three drives loom large, especially as the Gophers’ high-powered offense struggled to put up points in the second half.