STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (AP) — As an incoming freshman, Penn State safety Marcus Allen figured his transition to college football would be gradual.
Then he lowered his shoulder against bulldozing 240-pound teammate Zach Zwinak in a preseason practice and Penn State coaches realized immediately they could deploy the gutsy rookie as a weapon in the box. A few weeks later, he was creeping to the line to pop Ohio State’s equally-vicious Ezekiel Elliott.
“I felt as though if I could hit Zwinak, I could hit anybody. That’s a truckload,” said Allen, now a junior. “Ezekiel Elliott, one of the best running backs out there. So having good contact with him gave me more confidence that I could play in this league.”
The Nittany Lions (2-2, 0-1 Big Ten) will need more of that from Allen and fellow safety Malik Golden against Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) and its two-headed rushing attack as Penn State grasps for momentum in a season that’s soured quickly thanks to a long list of injuries.
Now without all of its starting linebackers, Penn State has allowed 326 rushing yards or more in two of its last three games, is coming off an embarrassing loss to No. 4 Michigan and faces the conference’s fifth-best rushing offense on Saturday.
As youngsters in front of them have whiffed again and again, Allen and Golden have combined for 57 tackles. They’ll have their eyes on Minnesota’s Rodney Smith and Kobe McCrary who’ve helped the Gophers rush for just over 228 yards per game.
“You talk about missing tackles, well, typically your linebackers are the unit that make the majority of your tackles,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “And we’ve lost our three starters.”
THIRD DOWN WOES: Linebackers Nyeem Wartman-White, Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda entered the season with 57 combined starts. Wartman-White is out for the season and Bell and Cabinda are out for this game.
Their replacements — Manny Bowen, Jake Cooper and former walk-on Brandon Smith — have just seven combined. The inexperience has shown on third down where opponents are converting nearly 40 percent of the time.
QB RESOLVE: Trace McSorley led his high school team to a 55-5 record so the 49-10 beatdown to Michigan was an unfamiliar feeling for the Penn State quarterback. He gathered the offense for extra film study earlier this week.
Meanwhile, Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner is spreading the ball around and taking care of it. He’s hit at least six different receivers in each game and has thrown just one interception in his last 95 attempts dating to last season. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound quarterback has also added 135 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.
“He’s taking who is open,” Minnesota coach Tracy Claeys said. “I know as a defensive coach you can’t look at one or two guys and take them away and make them go to their third option and beat you. I think that helps you on offense. I’m pleased where the offense is at.”
CORNERBACK CONCERN: Minnesota starting cornerback KiAnte Hardin remains suspended along with three others, including backup cornerback Ray Buford for a violation of team rules. Sophomore Antonio Shenault has slid into the starting lineup next to senior Jalen Myrick, but another reserve cornerback, Coney Durr, is out for this game with an unspecified injury.
The defense has been vulnerable at times to long gains, allowing 228.7 yards passing per game, second-most in the Big Ten.
LIMEGROVER REUNION: The Gophers will reunite with Matt Limegrover, the well-liked former offensive coordinator and offensive line coach who has assumed the latter role at Penn State. Claeys fired Limegrover after last season and replaced him with Jay Johnson and Bart Miller, respectively, with a desire to re-establish a power running game and a more productive offense overall.
“It’s definitely in the backs of our minds,” tight end Nate Wozniak said of facing Limegrover’s new team, “but we’re more focused on just getting the (Governor’s Victory) Bell, or keeping it here, I should say.”
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