Minnesota’s first conference game of the year will be at Penn State, and it’s going to be a tough one. A full breakdown, prediction, and other notes can be found below:
When Minnesota runs the ball:
Minnesota’s running game continued their hot start to the season with another stellar outing against Colorado State. The Gophers rushed for over 240 yards for the second straight time and scored all four of their touchdowns on the ground. All three of their main running backs, Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, and Kobe McCrary are healthy and quarterback Mitch Leidner has been effective on the read option.
Penn State’s rushing defense has been bottom-tier this year – 105th in the FBS – which has a lot to do with health. Three starters and one backup among the Nittany Lions’ linebackers have been hit with significant injuries and will all miss the game against Minnesota.
This would be an interesting matchup if Penn State had a healthy group, but they don’t. The Gophers could have a big day on the ground.
Matchup to watch: RB Shannon Brooks vs. LB Brandon Smith
When Penn State runs the ball:
Penn State has the best running back in the Big Ten, but he hasn’t performed like it. Saquon Barkley was third in the Big Ten in rushing yards last season but the sophomore has gotten off to a slow start as he is only averaging 79.3 yards a game. However, Barkley is also known for being a talented receiver and is second in the Big Ten with receiving yards among running backs, so he has made up for some of his shortcomings on the ground game.
Minnesota’s rushing defense has been good at times this year. The Gophers have still only allowed two rushing touchdowns and are 34th in the FBS in running defense. The Gophers have seen some solid play from their defensive line, specifically Steven Richardson and Hank Ekpe.
The matchup is a close one, but Minnesota edges out Barkley and Penn State here. Barkley is a talented running back, but it’ll be hard for him to break out against Minnesota.
Matchup to watch: RB Saquon Barkley vs. DT Steven Richardson
When Minnesota passes the ball:
Minnesota’s passing offense has been OK this season, and is 48th in the FBS in quarterback rating. Leidner has started strong, but a lot of his nice numbers came from the Indiana State game, where he threw his only four touchdowns of the season. His favorite receiver Drew Wolitarsky is fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards and remains Leidner’s only significant target.
Penn State hasn’t faced great passing offenses this year. All of their opponents, minus No. 4 Michigan, are in the bottom half of the FBS in quarterback rating (Temple, Kent State, Pittsburgh). That doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions haven’t impressed. They’ve limited opposing quarterbacks to 173.8 yards a game – 19th in the FBS – and have four interceptions. Free safety Marcus Allen is off to a good start and his supporting defensive backs have also played well.
The Nittany Lions were third in the Big Ten in passing defense last year and are second this season. This could be Leidner’s toughest game.
Matchup to watch: WR Drew Wolitarsky vs. CB John Reid
Advantage: Penn State
When Penn State passes the ball:
Penn State doesn’t have Christian Hackenberg anymore – their starter for 38 games at quarterback the past three seasons – but they have seemed to adjust to life without him. Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorely is their new guy under center and has done well. He has five touchdowns to three interceptions and showed improvement before No. 4 Michigan. The Nittany Lions also have four receivers in the Big Ten top-30 leaderboard (Minnesota has one).
Minnesota’s passing defense has had a rough start to the 2016 season. They’ve given up eight touchdowns to only one interception in three games this year and are second-to-last in the Big Ten in passing defense.
The Gophers’ secondary will probably get better as there is nowhere to go but up, but it probably won’t start this game.
Matchup to watch: WR Chris Godwin vs. CB Jalen Myrick
Advantage: Penn State
Penn State 31, Minnesota 21.
Minnesota won’t be at home anymore and this is a tough matchup to open the Big Ten. Penn State will send the Gophers back to Minneapolis with their first loss of the year.
Prediction record: 3-0
Around the web on the Gophers and the Nittany Lions:
-This was a powerful read by The Undefeated’s Mike Wise on Penn State’s decision to honor Joe Paterno and Wise’s experience as a survivor of child sexual abuse. A lot of people have written about Paterno’s legacy, and this first-person column was among the best.
-Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys fired former offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover shortly after the conclusion of Minnesota’s 2015 regular season. Marcus Fuller of the Star Tribune got quotes from Penn State’s head coach James Franklin and former Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill about how Limegrover landed on his feet as an offensive line coach for the Nittany Lions.
-An article by the Daily Collegian’s Andrew Rubin on Penn State’s new offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead. It’s an informative piece on Moorhead’s plan for the Nittany Lions’ new spread offense, his past success with it at Fordham, and how he is going to use Penn State’s skill position players.
-Who knew that kicker Emmit Carpenter and former Gophers punter Peter Mortell were neighbors back in Green Bay, Wisc. growing up? The Pioneer Press’ Andy Greder spoke with the two of them, how they both ended up at Minnesota and Carpenter’s success this year.
-Penn State has a kicker who is listed as 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 258 pounds. His name is Joey Julius and he has some of the hardest hits in the FBS this year. ESPN’s Josh Moyer did a story on him and has quotes from his victims.
1. It’s Drew Wolitarsky and the rest
-Drew Wolitarsky has the most receptions on the team by nine and the most receiving yards by 168. Leidner has done a good job spreading out the ball this season, throwing the ball to 12 different receivers this year already, but Wolitarsky is clearly the only one who has been able to separate himself from the pack. It’ll be a big help to Leidner once tight end Brandon Lingen and wide receiver Rashad Still return from injury, as they were two of his favorite targets from last year.
2. The Gophers’ next three games will be a lot harder than the previous three
-Starting with Penn State, Minnesota’s schedule gets very tough. The Gophers play Penn State on the road, the Big Ten runner-up, Iowa, and an improved Maryland on the road. Minnesota is a good team this year that looks like they’ll be able to get seven wins, but they may not do it against those three teams. Games against Rutgers, Illinois and Purdue are ones the Gophers should win.
3. Jonah Pirsig is the offensive line’s standout
-The offensive line has been a lot better than last year, but the one leading the crew has been right tackle Jonah Pirsig. The junior college transfers and left guard Connor Mayes all seem to be doing just fine, but Pirsig is the one who leads in the knockdown cup (pre-Colorado State game) and has been a great constant for the Gophers at that spot.
The Minnesota Daily’s coverage of the team from this past week:
-Steven Richardson has been dominant this season. An analyst from Pro Football Focus, Gophers coaches and Richardson explain why.
-Shannon Brooks had his first game of the season against Colorado State and he made it a good one. Brooks and others talk about what he did well and how his foot looks after surgery in August.
-Leidner has started the season strong, but how much of that should be attributed to the easy schedule and what can he still work on? Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve Palazzolo spoke with the Minnesota Daily about Leidner’s level of play, and where his NFL chances stand as of now.
-For this week’s Questions from the Other Side, the Minnesota Daily spoke with Andrew Rubin, the Penn State football writer for the Daily Collegian, who provided analysis, his pick to win the Big Ten and a score prediction for the game Saturday.
-Comments from Leidner, Claeys, tight end Nate Wozniak, and linebacker Jonathan Celestin on what the team is doing to prepare for the tough atmosphere that Beaver Stadium presents.
-Story from the game on Saturday about Minnesota’s defensive line.
- Minnesota-Colorado State game recap from Saturday.
Everything else you need to know:
Start time: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 2:30 p.m. CST
Network: Big Ten Network
Radio: KFAN 100.3 FM
Line: Penn State by 2.5