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Minnesota at Penn State

Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The Nittany Lions and Gophers are all set for a battle of the unbeatens in November.

Penn State will head to Minneapolis for a showdown between two 8-0 teams with dreams of a playoff berth.

(#5) Penn State (8-0, 5-0) vs. Minnesota (8-0, 5-0)

Kickoff: Noon, TFC Bank Stadium, Minneapolis, MN

The Betting Line: Penn State -6.5

TV: ABC – Sean McDonough (play-by-play), Todd Blackledge (analyst), Holly Rowe (sideline)

Weather: A cold day, which should be expected for November in Minnesota. The temperatures will be hovering around the freezing mark with lows in the teens. Snow showers are expected for the afternoon, likely near the end or following the conclusion of the game.

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 53-21, 6th Year

OVERALL RECORD: 77-36, 9th Year

VS. MINNESOTA: 1-0

P.J. Fleck:

MINNESOTA RECORD: 20-13, 3rd Season

OVERALL RECORD: 50-35, 7th Season

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting

NOW THE FUN PART….

MINNESOTA OFFENSE VS. PENN STATE DEFENSE

The Gophers have a well-balanced offense that has been steadily improving throughout the season. Sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan has done an excellent job leading the offense in his second year as a starter, making plays as needed while protecting the football. He’s completing 65.3 percent of passes on the year for 1,761 yards, with 18 touchdowns to four interceptions. He is coming off a couple pedestrian performances against Rutgers and Maryland, completing 56 percent of his passes against two poor defenses.

Morgan can be inconsistent from week-to-week, and his involvement can change based on the gameplan for each particular opponent. For instance, he only threw 30 combined passes against Illinois and Nebraska in recent weeks, but had 28 attempts against Rutgers in week eight, and a season-high 31 attempts against Georgia Southern earlier in the season. He had his best game by far against Purdue, connecting on 21 of his 22 attempts for 396 yards four touchdowns and no interceptions. Expect his pass attempt total to be on the high end considering Penn State’s ability to stop the run. Don’t be surprised if P.J. Fleck comes in with a game plan mimicking Michigan’s second-half against the Nittany Lions, with Morgan finding short outs to attack the zone while also getting the ball out of his hands quickly to neutralize the pass rush.

Morgan relies on two main targets, but does not spread the ball around much outside of Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. Bateman is a large, talented sophomore who leads the team with 644 receiving yards and a 20.8 yard per catch average. Johnson is a four-year starter who leads the team with 43 catches and seven touchdown grabs. He’s also a big target at 6-2, 205 lbs. and does well in coverage. Minnesota does not involve the tight end much in the passing game, with stater Jake Paulson only on the receiving end of four catches with no touchdowns.

One reason for the Gophers improvement throughout the season is the offensive line’s ability to protect Morgan. After giving up total 11 sacks to Fresno State, Georgia Southern and Purdue, the offensive line has only allowed one sack in the last four games, and none in the last three.

They’ve also done a tremendous job opening up holes for Rodney Smith , who is putting together an All-Big Ten season. The sixth-year running back (Smith has been at Minnesota as long as James Franklin has been with Penn State) is riding a hot streak of five 100-yard plus games, which includes a 211 yard outing against Illinois. Smith also had 104 rushing yards the last time these teams met back in 2016. Smith has proven a dangerous weapon out of the backfield in the past, but has rarely been used in the passing game this season with just five receptions.

Minnesota does a fantastic job of playing keep-away, coming in third in the nation in time of possession. Combine that with an efficient quarterback and two outstanding wideouts, the Nittany Lions will need to minimize the amount of third down conversions. There’s no doubt the Gophers will want to keep Clifford and company on the sidelines and hope to wear down the defense enough to be able to strike late in the game.

PENN STATE OFFENSE VS. MINNESOTA DEFENSE

Penn State has faced some of the nation’s top defenses in the first eight games. This trend will continue as Minnesota will be the sixth team ranked in the top 20 for total defense that the Nittany Lions have faced thus far. While most upstart programs like Minnesota will rely on a few standouts to carry the team, the Gophers defense is quite different. There are no outliers on the stat sheet that really jump out, but rather, a large group that contributes pretty evenly.

The one player who will without a doubt be playing on Sundays is safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Not only is he second in the nation with five interceptions, he’s also tied for the team lead with 46 tackles, including two sacks. He’ll be lined up all over the place on Sunday in hopes of forcing a mistake by Sean Clifford , who has been very careful with the football in his first year as a starter. Fellow defensive back Chris Williamson is used in a similar fashion, and is often used on delayed blitzes. Carter Coughlin is a senior with an excellent track record of getting after the quarterback, finishing with 9.5 sacks in 2018 and leads the team with five sacks and 3.5 TFLs this season.

True freshman Noah Cain looks to be set for his second consecutive start after being bumped to the first ‘OR’ on the Nittany Lions depth chart. Regardless of when Cain gets his first carry, he’ll continue his role as the “closer” of the four primary backs, getting the most pivotal carries late in the game.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Gophers avoid long field goals, often rolling the dice on fourth downs or just settle for a field position advantage. Freshman kicker Michael Lantz is five of eight on the season, with a long of 37 yards. Punter Jacob Herbers has a 38.7 yard average and a season long of 51 yards. Sophomore wide receiver Demetrius Douglas handles return duties for the Gophers, with a 4.8 yard punt return average and a long of 19, and a 18.4 yards on kickoff returns and a long of 32. Rodney Smith also helps with kickoffs, faring slightly better with a 24.3 yard average and a long of 36. The Gophers do not have a return touchdown this season.

Minnesota has done a poor job covering kickoffs and punts, meaning KJ Hamler could finally reach the end zone on a return. The speedy Hamler has had return touchdowns in each of the last two games that were ultimately nullified by penalties.

PREDICTION

Penn State-31, Minnesota-17

The truth is somewhere in the middle for this Minnesota team. While they may not be as good as their AP ranking of #13 indicates, they also aren’t simply a product of a poor schedule. They’re a balanced team that does a lot of things well, and most importantly, have improved from week-to-week since the start of the season.

The Gophers have a solid defense without any glaring weaknesses. The offense possesses an efficient quarterback with two standout receivers, and one of the best running games in the Big Ten. However, they don’t have the speed and depth of the Nittany Lions. This is what will make the difference that allows Penn State to pull ahead and stay unbeaten for at least one more week.

KJ Hamler has the biggest game of an already spectacular season with 140 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Pat Freiermuth adds another through the air, with Journey Brown finishing off a long drive by finding the end zone.

Micah Parsons continues his incredible run by showing why he was just named a Butkus semifinalist, chipping in 13 tackles and three TFLs. Yetur Gross-Matos gets to the quarterback twice, with Robert Windsor and Shaka Toney each picking up a sack. Penn State wears down the Gophers in the trenches for win number nine.

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