MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — How’s this for a paradigm shift in Big Ten football?
Minnesota has won straight three conference games and is favored, ever so slightly, to beat Penn State.
The Gophers (7-2, 3-2) gained the confidence and momentum they were lacking with a gritty victory at Northwestern three weeks ago, and now their sights are set on a New Year’s Day bowl game. Coach Jerry Kill’s leave of absence to treat his epilepsy has worked out well so far for him and his fledgling program.
Kill will again watch from above in a supervisory role on Saturday.
“I guess I’m the CEO right now,” Kill said, adding: “My ego’s not that big.”
The Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2) are coming off a resilient overtime victory over Illinois, trying to break this pattern of winning every other week.
“Obviously, we’d like to be 8-0,” coach Bill O’Brien said. “I think we’ve played tough. I think we’ve battled hard. We’ve competed. It’s been a little bit up and down at times. At times we’ve played well as a team. At times we haven’t.”
The Gophers checked bowl eligibility off their list with an exhilarating, first-time-since-1960 win over Nebraska two weeks. Now they’re trying to win four Big Ten games in a row in the same season for the first time since 1973.
“It’s just another step toward making history. Just being a part of that is a great feeling,” tight end Maxx Williams said.
Here are five things to know about Saturday’s game between the Nittany Lions and the Golden Gophers:
BLOSSOMING BELTON: After getting gashed in their Big Ten opener against Iowa, which had 246 yards rushing to a mere 30 for Minnesota, the Gophers have outgained on the ground every opponent since. They’ll probably need to keep that up to win this week against a Nittany Lions team that has allowed an average more than 150 yards rushing per game. On the other side, defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman and the rest of the run defense have been tasked with containing junior tailback Bill Belton. Belton last week became Penn State’s first 200-yard rusher since Larry Johnson in 2002. The converted wide receiver has 384 yards rushing over his last three games.
AERIAL ATTACK: The Nittany Lions actually pose more danger to the Gophers through the air. Freshman Christian Hackenberg leads the conference in yards passing per game, and Allen Robinson is the Big Ten’s leading receiver. Minnesota is ninth in the league in defense against the pass, with an average of 241.7 yards allowed per game. Robinson, who’s second in the nation among NCAA FBS players in yards receiving per game, needs only 42 yards to break Bobby Engram’s season record for the program.
LOST LEADER: The Gophers will be without center Jon Christenson for the rest of the season because of a left leg injury suffered last Saturday that required surgery, so junior Tommy Olson will take over there.
“I’ve tried to talk to him about it. I told him I’m praying for him. That’s a tough thing,” Olson said.
Olson was the primary left guard last year, but he hurt his right foot and wasn’t the same when he returned from a six-game absence. Switched to center this year to help shore up the depth on the line, Olson now has the opportunity to play again in the starting lineup with his older brother. Ed Olson was bothered by ankle problems last season and had to work his way back this year after missing spring practices, but he recently moved ahead of Marek Lenkiewicz and Ben Lauer at left tackle and returned to the first team for the Oct. 26 win over Nebraska.
NELSON IN CHARGE: Though the Gophers plan to rotate Mitch Leidner in at times, Philip Nelson is now the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback. The sophomore is coming off the best game of his career, with 298 yards on 16-for-23 passing for four touchdowns and no interceptions.
TROPHY CASE AWAITS: Though these teams didn’t start playing until 1993 when Penn State joined the Big Ten, an attempt was made to start a rivalry with the concoction of the Governors’ Victory Bell. The Nittany Lions lead the series 8-4, including four straight wins. The Gophers last held the hardware in 2004. Minnesota won’t host this game again until 2019, due to the expanding conference. The next meeting will be in 2016 at Beaver Stadium in State College, Pa.
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