Minnesota (3-0) vs. Penn State (2-2)
Time: 2:30 P.M. CT, Saturday, October 1st
TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin (Play by Play) and Chuck Long (Analyst)
Last week: Minnesota defeated Colorado State 31-24, and Penn State lost to Michigan 49-10
All-time series: Nittany Lions lead the series 8-5 (Minnesota won 24-10 in Minneapolis in 2013)
Vegas betting line: Penn State (-3)
Know Your Enemy: Five questions with Penn State publisher Mark Brennan
Five things you need to know
1. Minnesota begins Big Ten play on Saturday as it heads to Penn State for its first road game of the season. Minnesota (15-5 in its last 20 road-openers) and Penn State have played for the Governor’s Victory Bell since 2003, as the Gophers were the first Big Ten opponent to face Penn State when it joined the conference. Minnesota is 5-8 all-time against Penn State, but is in possession of the Governor’s Victory Bell after a 24-10 home win in 2013. The series has been one of streaks, as Penn State won the first four games (1993, 1994, 1997 and 1998) between the teams. Minnesota then rattled off four straight wins (1999, 2000, 2003 and 2004) before Penn State again won four in a row (2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010). Minnesota last played at Penn State in 2009, which means that no current Gopher has played there.
2. The Gophers finished the non-conference slate of their schedule with a 3-0 record after beating Oregon State (first regular season win against a Pac-12 opponent since beating California 32-23 in 1987), Indiana State and Colorado State. Minnesota is 14-1 (loss was 23-17 to No. 2 TCU in 2015) in non-conference games at TCF Bank Stadium since the start of the 2012 season. Minnesota is also 21-10 at home during that span.
3. Minnesota scored 30 points against Oregon State, 58 versus Indiana State and 31 against Colorado State under new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson. It’s the first time since 2008 (31 vs Northern Illinois, 42 at Bowling Green and 35 vs Montana State) that Minnesota has scored 30 or more points in each of its first three games of the season. Minnesota’s 119 total points are also the most it has scored in the first three games of the season since it scored 143 combined points to start 2005 (41 at Tulsa, 56 vs Colorado State and 46 vs Florida Atlantic). Minnesota’s 30 points against Oregon State were the most it scored in a non-conference game against a power five opponent since it scored 53 against Iowa State in 1997. In the eight qualifying games since, the most points Minnesota scored was 23 at Syracuse in 2009 in an overtime game. Minnesota’s 58 points against Indiana State were the Gophers scored since piling up 63 against Indiana in 2006
4. Minnesota will play five Big Ten road games (Penn State, Maryland, Illinois, Nebraska and Wisconsin) this season, as conference play has expanded to nine games. This will be the first time in 33 years and just the fourth time in program history that the Gophers play five conference road games. They also did so in 1980, 1982 and 1983.
5. Minnesota has three senior captains this year in quarterback Mitch Leidner, safety Damarius Travis and linebacker Jack Lynn (junior tight end Brandon Lingen is also a captain). However, the Gophers only have 13 seniors/grad students on its roster. Those 13 represent the third smallest group in major college football (Kentucky 11, Penn State, Baylor 12). Of those 13, only three play on offense in Leidner (QB), Drew Wolitarsky (WR) and Jonah Pirsig (OL). Those three seniors are the fewest in major college football (Troy, Old Dominion, Florida and South Carolina have four).
Penn State players to watch
1) Trace McSorely, quarterback: The mobile McSorley has been a nice fit in Joe Moorhead’s new no-huddle offense, which operates exclusively out of the shotgun and feature elements of the RPO. Through four games, McSorley has been far more efficient than Hackenberg was the last two seasons, completing 63 percent of his passes. But like most new starters, he’s made a few critical mistakes at key moments, including throwing a interception that cost PSU at least a chance to tie vs. Pitt. McSorley does not have the sort of big arm Hackenberg does, but when he gets dialed in his he very effective in the short passing game and throwing on the run.
2) Saquon Barkley, running back: If Penn State is going to get the victory at home tomorrow, it's likely going to come from the legs of stud running back Saquon Barkley. The sophomore running back is averaging about five yards a carry, and has six scores on the ground, and is averaging almost 15 yards a catch through the air. Penn State's offensive line hasn't been great, so for Barkley to be as productive as he has, he's going to be the main player for Minnesota to shut down.
3) Marcus Allen, safety: One of the best players on Penn State's defense is Marcus Allen as he's second in tackles, and I expect him to be a huge part of stopping Minnesota's offense on the ground, and through the air.
Keys to the game
1. Quick start: Far too often last year, Minnesota would get behind early and have to play from behind time after time. The Gophers in the first quarter last season were outscored by a total of 75-37, but in the last three quarters of games last year, the Gophers actually outscored their opponents 255-252. That trend is looking better so far in 2016 as Minnesota is tied with their opponents in the first quarter 21-21, but Penn State is a whole different animal. If the Gophers want to get out early and turn the crowd against the Nittany Lions, they have to come out ready to play on both sides of the ball.
2. Get the running game going, and stop Saquon Barkley: Minnesota on the season is averaging 228 yards a game on the ground and has scored 11 times on the ground through three games. Penn State is averaging 213.2 yards a game against their defense on the ground and has given up three rushing scores a game. On paper, this is a game that Minnesota's rushing game should have a big day as you can see. If that's going to happen, the Gophers offensive line has to continue their stellar game, and Shannon Brooks needs to burst onto the Big Ten scene with a bang. The defensive side of things, the number one priority has to be to stop Saquon Barkley and the Penn State running attack, and make Trace McSorely beat you. The Nittany Lions have the wide receivers to do so, but if Minnesota's able to stop Barkley for the most part, they're going to have a chance.
3. Clean up the penalties: 27 penalties through three games, and while we all know that unacceptable, Minnesota's been able to get away with it against inferior opponents. That won't be the case on Saturday on the road in Happy Valley. The pre-snap penalties have to be cleaned up, and the bone headed personal foul calls have to stop. Minnesota's got to stay disciplined if they're going to emerge from Penn State with a victory.
Minnesota (15-5 in its last 20 road-openers) and Penn State have played for the Governor’s Victory Bell since 2003, as the Gophers were the first Big Ten opponent to face Penn State when it joined the conference. Minnesota last played at Penn State in 2009, which means that no current Gopher has played there. This game on paper appears to be truly as 50/50 as they come. The stats, analytics and Vegas lines have this as close as they come. I think this game will come down to whether Minnesota can get off to a fast start or not. If they can, Penn State starts going into self-doubt coming off a big loss last week and the crowd could turn against them. If Minnesota's going to have the season fans and media anticipate them having, they have to win this game.