Unlikely favorites hit the road

Penn State University's athletic teams joined the Big Ten a decade ago. If you had told somebody in 1993 that 10 years down the road the Gophers would roll into Beaver Stadium as three-point favorites, you'd likely have been escorted to the nearest padded-wall establishment to protect those around you.

And yet, here we are. Glen Mason's 4-0 Golden Gophers are favored by a field goal as they open their Big Ten schedule at 2-2 Penn State. The Gophers have returned to the Top 25 this year, while the once-mighty Nittany Lions have slipped to middle of the pack in the conference.

This role reversal actually has its roots in the young Gopher-Lions rivalry. In 1999, Minnesota sprung an upset on the road as Dan Nystrom's field goal at the gun lifted the Gophers past No. 2 Penn State. Since that game, the Nittany Lions are playing .500 ball, while Minnesota has played in three bowl games in four years.

Penn State coach Joe Paterno said he didn't expect to be .500 again this year after losses to Boston College at home and Nebraska on the road.

"I probably would have thought that we had a shot at being 3-1, realistically. I may have been in bed and daydreaming thinking that we could be 4-0, and I come to these press conferences and they are all voting for me for Coach of the Year, but we are 2-2," Paterno said. "We have a chance to become a good team. Whether we do it or not is in our own hands right now."

It's also in the hands of the Gophers, a team that has earned Paterno's respect after beating the Lions in 1999 and 2000 (the teams didn't meet in the past two years). He's especially impressed with the Minnesota offense, which hasn't been held under 40 points yet this season.

"They have an awfully good offensive line. They are very disciplined and very well coached," said Paterno. "The quarterback, Abdul-Khaliq, can make plays. The tailback (Marion Barber III) is a big-time tailback. They have really good tight ends. I think they are a very good offensive football team. The biggest thing about them is that they know what they want to do. They are disciplined and do not make a lot of mistakes.

"They are very consistent and very well coached," he continued. "Glen Mason has done a tremendous job at Minnesota. It may be one of the best coaching jobs over a period of four or five years that anybody has done in the country. They have a lot of distractions with the stadium where the professional teams run the place. Glen has done a great job. If we beat them, we have to beat them. They are not going to beat themselves."

At the same time, he's not distracted by thoughts of the last time Minnesota came to town.

"I hadn't even thought about that game until you just brought it up," Paterno said at a press conference earlier this week. "I am looking at the kids who are playing at Minnesota right now, and I am looking at my team. All I am trying to do is figure out a way that we can be good enough to win this week. I don't think what happened in 1999 is going to have one thing to do with what happens this Saturday. There is nothing I can do about that."

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