It’s time to stop doubting Minnesota.
In the lead-up to Saturday’s game with fellow unbeaten Penn State, all of the talk centered on the poor competition Minnesota had faced to this point in the season. This was a team that barely beat South Dakota State, Fresno State and Georgia Southern before beating up on the Big Ten’s worst teams.
Surely the 17th-ranked Gophers would be exposed against the fourth-ranked Nittany Lions, right? Wrong.
P.J. Fleck’s Gophers controlled the game from the start in an impressive 31-26 win. Minnesota made Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford uncomfortable from the jump while its offense used a balanced approach to move the ball all over the vaunted PSU defense to the tune of 460 yards.
The Minnesota run game wasn’t great — it averaged just 3.0 yards per rush — but it kept the Penn State defense honest, allowing Tanner Morgan to pick apart the overmatched PSU secondary all afternoon. Morgan completed 18 of his 20 attempts for 339 yards and three scores. Penn State had absolutely no answer for Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. The two combined for 14 catches for 307 yards and two scores.
It was a 66-yard catch-and-run touchdown from Bateman that opened the scoring for the Gophers. It would be a sign of things to come. Minnesota gashed Penn State, a defense that had been allowing an average of 280 yards per game, for 182 yards on its first two drives of the ballgame — scoring drives of 95 and 87 yards.
Penn State did its best to keep up in the early going. Minnesota’s lead was 14-10 entering the second quarter, but an interception from Clifford — his second of the first half — gave the ball back to the Gophers. Three plays later, Morgan found Johnson for a 38-yard score, and the Gophers had a 21-10 lead.
That lead was 24-13 at halftime and 31-19 early in the fourth quarter. From there, the Gophers held on for dear life. Penn State cut the lead to 31-26 with 3:49 to play and got the ball back after forcing a three-and-out.
Clifford led the PSU offense deep into Minnesota territory, but a pass down to the 1-yard line was taken off the board by an offensive pass interference penalty. A few plays later, Clifford tossed his third interception of the game — this time in the end zone — to seal the upset victory for the Gophers.
How high will Minnesota climb in CFP rankings?
The College Football Playoff selection committee showed its skepticism with Minnesota by ranking it all the way down at No. 17 despite an 8-0 record. The Gophers were ranked behind six two-loss teams, including No. 13 Wisconsin, a Big Ten West foe.
But now the Gophers have a signature win over a team the committee clearly respected: Penn State. PSU, with wins over ranked teams like Iowa and Michigan, was controversially placed one spot ahead of Clemson, a team that has been cruising through a downtrodden ACC.
Of course, it depends on what happens with the teams above Minnesota in the rankings, but the Gophers showed that they have legitimate athletes on both sides of the ball to compete with one of the nation’s top teams. Fleck’s group deserves more respect and a top-10 ranking.
From here, the Gophers enter a bye week before closing out its season against Iowa, Northwestern and Wisconsin. Iowa and Wisconsin play later Saturday with second place in the Big Ten West on the line. So the Gophers still have work to do to get to Indianapolis for the Big Ten title game.
Penn State doomed by turnovers, red zone play calling
Clifford, a first-year starter, has had some uneven performances to this point in the season — but Saturday was undoubtedly his worst. The redshirt sophomore had 340 passing yards, but completed just 23 of his 43 throws and tossed three interceptions. Two of those three interceptions came deep in Minnesota territory, and those mistakes were only a part of Penn State’s issues on offense.
On its second drive, a delay-of-game penalty on third-and-3 from the Minnesota 10 ended up forcing PSU to settle for a field goal to cut the lead to 14-10 instead of potentially tying the score.
Later in the first half with the Gophers leading 24-10, Penn State drove deep into Minnesota territory with the clock ticking inside 20 seconds. PSU still had a timeout remaining, but the coaching staff perplexingly decided to stop the clock by spiking the ball on first-and-goal from the 7. That decision, giving the offense one fewer shot at the end zone, proved costly. A second-down pass fell incomplete and third-down quarterback draw — another questionable call — came up short of the goal line, forcing PSU to burn its timeout. And instead of going for it on fourth down, PSU kicked a 21-yard field goal to cut the deficit to 24-13 at halftime.
The goal line issues would continue in the second half. This time facing a 31-19 deficit, PSU moved the ball to the Minnesota 9-yard line and decided to run three straight running plays. That was on the heels of the passing attack moving the ball right through the Gophers defense.
Two runs by Devyn Ford gave PSU third-and-goal from the 4, and again a designed quarterback run was called. It went nowhere. The fourth-down play call — a corner fade to 5-foot-9 K.J. Hamler — was worse. The diminutive Hamler was outmatched by a bigger Minnesota defender, and the Nittany Lions turned it over on downs.
Now 8-1, Penn State still has a trip to play No. 1 Ohio State on the schedule in a game that will likely decide the Big Ten East.
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