(WCCO)- “This is going to be the biggest test. It’s the biggest game in the stadium’s nine-year history and the biggest game in probably 15-16 years, since they hosted a ranked Michigan team at the Metrodome.”
–Ryan Burns, publisher GopherIllustrated
It’s easy, whenever ranked teams meet, to play up the importance of the game, to impart an extra level of import. But Saturday’s match-up at TCF Bank Stadium, featuring P.J. Fleck’s #17 Minnesota Golden Gophers hosting James Franklin’s #4 Penn State Nittany Lions, is a landmark game, as we delve deeper into the month of November. Each team enters with an unblemished 8-0 record, and each is vying for control over their respective division within the Big Ten, hoping for a spot in the conference championship game come December.
When scanning the schedule prior to the year, you could be forgiven for not circling this game as one with conference, and possibly, College Football Playoff implications. However, the play of both teams has set up a Saturday afternoon affair that will affect the conference title hopes of both teams moving forward. For Minnesota, remaining unbeaten would quiet some of the doubt piled on the team by the national media. For Penn State, a win means that their date with Ohio State on November 23rd would still be on track to decide the Big Ten East.
For the Gophers, doubt about their unbeaten streak has been a constant. In September, it was due to the fact that they narrowly escaped their opening three games against South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern. Now that October is over, and they remain unbeaten, the biggest question people have about the Gophers is about the opposition they have faced. This season, they have seen opponents’ backup quarterbacks in every game since September 7th against Fresno State.
Strange quirk: Minnesota has not faced a first-team QB for a full game since Sept. 7 at Fresno State.
Ga. Southern: Werts DNP
Purdue: Sindelar hurt early
Illinois: Peters hurt early
Nebraska: Martinez DNP
Rutgers: Carter retired/Sitkowski redshirt
Maryland: Jackson had one drive
— Derek Levarse (@TLdlevarse) November 5, 2019
It’s a fair criticism, and an understandable reason to wait before declaring Minnesota among the best teams in the country despite their unblemished record. But Burns’ point in return is to look at how Minnesota has played against those teams. They haven’t been scraping by, they have battered their opponents.
“I think the story would be that a good team beats mediocre to bad teams, and they beat them by a lot. Minnesota, in the month of October, won their games by a total of 127 points combined,” said Burns. “Each one of those October games were laughers.”
To Burns’ point, the Gophers defense hasn’t allowed more than 17 points in over a month, and they held their October opponents to a total of 41 points. That is the kind of domination you would expect from a good team facing a backup quarterback. Now, they won’t see a backup (barring injury) this week against Penn State, which is why Burns says starting this weekend, “we’re really going to find out if this team has what it needs to be a Big Ten West champion.”
The Nittany Lions bring an explosive offense to the matchup, averaging 38.5 points per game and 5.8 yards per play. Speedy receiver KJ Hamler, whom Burns sees as “one of the best in the Big Ten,” is averaging 16.8 yards per catch. Running backs Noah Cain, Journey Brown and Devyn Ford are all averaging over five yards per carry. And tight end Pat Freiermuth is a touchdown machine with seven on the season and a program record 15 in his young career. All of those weapons have combined to give Sean Clifford some big plays this season, an area of the game that Burns believes Minnesota must rein in to be successful on Saturday.
“If Joe Rossi can make Sean Clifford go on nine-10-play drives and figure out a way to stop Pat Freiermuth in the red zone, because all that guy does is score touchdowns in the red zone, I think that is your key,” said Burns who points out that of Penn State’s 16 scoring drives in October, only two were longer than nine plays. Forcing Penn State to be more methodical, and move the ball down the field consistently is something we saw Iowa have some success with, as the Hawkeyes gave up just 294 yards and allowed Clifford to complete just 50 percent of his passes.
To that end, getting after Clifford would be helpful. The Nittany Lions line has allowed 14 sacks this season, but eight of those have come in their three closest games (Iowa, Michigan and Pitt). The Gophers have shown the ability to get after the quarterback, with 19 sacks on the year. If they can get disruption and put Penn State behind the chains, it would go a long way towards a win.
On the offensive side, Burns sees the key matchup for the Gophers coming on the outside, with wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman going against the Penn State secondary. The Nittany Lions are allowing just 211 passing yards per game so far this season, but this may be the best group of receivers that they have faced.
“Tyler Johnson is a legitimate NFL guy. He is going to be a guy you’re going to see a lot in the short-to-intermediate game, on the slants and crossing routes trying to make sure they get him in space,” said Burns. “Then they also have Rashod Batemen, who has seen a ton of double teams or bracket coverage here in the last month. He is a guy with deep speed, and any time he touches the ball, he can take it 70 yards to the house.”
Penn State was stretched by Michigan at times in the second half, when Shea Patterson had time to sit back and wait for his receivers to come open. And the Wolverines receiving corps doesn’t have a guy like Johnson or Bateman. Also of note, Penn State defensive back John Reid is dealing with an arm injury sustained in the team’s last game against Michigan State prior to the bye.
But, in order for Minnesota to exploit the Penn State secondary, they will have to give sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan time. That has been a problem for Nittany Lions opponents this season. The Lions’ pass rush of Yetur Gross-Matos, Shaka Toney, and Robert Windsor have combined for 13 of the team’s 30 sacks on the year. The defensive front has proven difficult for opposing offensive lines to handle, and that will undoubtedly be part of the game plan that Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca has prepared during the bye week. The Gophers line has been solid this season, allowing just 16 sacks, or two per game. But, the Penn State front will be the best they have seen this season.
Morgan, like Clifford, is in his first season as the team’s full-time starter after coming in as a replacement for Zach Annexstad last season. He has impressed, completing over 65 percent of his passes and sporting a 18-to-4 touchdown to interception ratio. But, this will be the toughest task he has faced all year, and Penn State defensive coordinator Brent Pry has been known to get creative with his blitzes. For Morgan, Burns says that Ciarrocca has done his best to “not put too much on his plate” and on the plate of the Gophers’ dynamic skill position players. How Morgan handles this test will be an interesting watch for Gophers fans dreaming of a Big Ten title shot.
Heading into the matchup, the oddsmakers have Penn State as touchdown favorites. Kick off between the Gophers and Nittany Lions is set for 11:00 p.m. Central Time from TCF Bank Stadium.