The Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2) head to Happy Valley for a primetime matchup (and a White Out game) against the No. 16-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions (6-1).
Can Penn State score on offense?
Remember Sean Clifford? The sixth-year senior is Penn State’s very own Tanner Morgan, halfway through his fourth year as starting quarterback. Our friends over at Black Shoe Diaries would like to see that campaign cut short, though, calling for Clifford to be benched in favor of true freshman Drew Allar. They may very well get their wish after Clifford exited the Nittany Lions’ 41-17 loss to Michigan with an undisclosed injury. He was 7-of-19 for 120 passing yards against the Wolverines before being sidelined, though he did also rack up 74 yards on the ground.
Common criticisms of Clifford should sound familiar to Gopher fans: He is a game manager. He is an average quarterback, at best. He does not have the skillset to take the offense to the next level. Allar, a former five-star prospect, is the Nittany Lions’ quarterback of the future and many believe that that future is now, even though he has only seen limited action up to this point.
Penn State has talent at wide receiver, but they are missing the play-making ability of a Jahan Dotson. Western Kentucky transfer Mitchell Tinsley leads the team in receptions (24), sophomore wide receiver Parker Washington leads the team in receiving yards (318), and redshirt junior tight end Brenton Strange leads the team in receiving touchdowns (4).
The bright spot on offense this season for the Nittany Lions has been true freshman Nick Singleton. He is averaging seven yards per carry, rushing for 482 yards and five touchdowns. Penn State splits carries between Singleton and fellow true freshman Kaytron Allen, who has rushed for 319 yards and four touchdowns. The offensive line had been playing well, opening up running lanes for Singleton and Allen, before running into a brick wall against Michigan.
Tough to say how Minnesota’s defense matches up against this offense. I’m still sort of shell-shocked by how poorly they played at all three levels of the defense last week. The defensive line got beat up front, the linebackers struggled in their run fits, and the secondary got carved up by a talented group of receivers. At a minimum, the Gophers need to be better against the run. Bottle up Singleton and Allen and force whoever is under center to beat you.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Minnesota went from averaging 45 points per game through the first four games to averaging 12 points per game in their last two contests, both of which were losses. Against Purdue, the Gophers’ ground game came to a screeching halt without Mohamed Ibrahim. The following week against Illinois, Ibrahim returned but the Illini defense took the oxygen out of Minnesota’s air attack, limiting them to 38 yards passing and forcing three interceptions.
Redshirt freshman Athan Kaliakmanis was responsible for throwing two of those interceptions after being forced into action due to the upper body injury that forced starting quarterback Tanner Morgan out of the game in the fourth quarter. Head coach P.J. Fleck has been customarily tight-lipped about Morgan’s status aside from a vague update at his Monday press conference. Kaliakmanis drawing his first career start in Happy Valley would certainly not be ideal.
Aside from the hostile environment, Kaliakmanis would be facing one of the most talented secondaries in the Big Ten. Redshirt senior safety Ji’Ayir Brown is the star of the Nittany Lions’ secondary, leading the team in tackles (34) and tied for the team lead in interceptions (2). Redshirt junior Joey Porter Jr. is their top-rated cornerback, with a team-high seven pass break-ups, though sophomore Kalen King is far behind with six of his own. Penn State gives up a fair amount of yards through the air (242.5 passing yards allowed per game), but they buckle down in the red zone, only allowing three passing touchdowns in 21 red zone trips.
With how much the Minnesota wide receiver corps struggled to create separation against Illinois, I’m not sure I like their chances of bouncing back against Penn State.
Against the run, the Nittany Lions got steamrolled by Michigan’s offensive line last week, paving the way for 418 total rushing yards. Ibrahim should be able to find room to run, but Minnesota’s offensive line isn’t nearly as overpowering as Michigan’s. He will have to earn every yard, especially if the Gophers can’t force Penn State to respect the pass.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
I just don’t have much confidence in the Gophers’ offense at this point, especially if Tanner Morgan is unable to play. Expecting a redshirt freshman quarterback to lead your team to victory on the road in his first career start seems like a big ask. Penn State 19, Minnesota 10.