The idea behind The Blitz? Former Playbook scribes (and current FOS staffers) Mark Harrington and Nirav Dalal provide a fans' eye breakdown of the upcoming game. They discuss and debate pertinent issues, matchups and injuries, and — of course — provide their predictions. They also take an overview of the entire weekend in college football.
Like a pair of (undersized and very slow) outside linebackers, they pin back their ears and get after it. Sometimes they come through with big hits, other times they miss. But they always enjoy themselves.
ND: It wasn't necessarily pretty, but Penn State bounced back with another overtime win, this time against what was a pesky Illini team. Bill Belton rushed for over 200 yards and Allen Robinson stepped up again to help PSU get back on track despite several shortcomings with the squad.
MH: The bottom line is it was a victory. Penn State came out strong and then when into hibernation with a poor performance that saw 11 penalties of nearly 100 yards. Penn State now looks to a formidable Minnesota team on the road, so they need to buckle down all-around to take on the Gophers.
Who: Penn State at Minnesota
When: Saturday, November 9 at 12:00 pm ET, 9:00 am PT
Where: TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN
Series: Penn State leads 8-4
Line: Minnesota favored by 2.5 points
OTHER BIG GAMES
ND: There's another pretty big one in the SEC this week as No. 13 LSU heads to No. 1 Alabama. The Tigers are still reeling from their 27-24 loss to Ole Miss and beating up on Furman likely didn't subside the agony. Now they get a Bama team that is once again looking for another title. Not sure if you saw the 60 Minutes feature on Saban this week, but it's clear that this guy's entire life revolves around winning so there's little doubt he will be looking to pound Les Miles' boys.
MH: Outside of that game you have the No. 3 Oregon Ducks playing the No. 5 Stanford Cardinal on Thursday, which is weird for such a high-profile clash. And you have No. 10 Oklahoma heading to No. 6 Baylor, also on Thursday. Both games will serve as major factors in the conference and national races.
ND: Last week I took a break on my upset special. This week I am going to go with Virginia Tech knocking off No. 11 Miami. Sure. It's unconventional, but the Hokies have to get their season back on track after a loss to Duke and BC. A third consecutive loss will be devastating. Miami is feeling the pain from their big loss to Florida State. I have a feeling they may not be able to pull out of that tailspin just yet.
MH: Last week I managed to get another call right as Oklahoma State destroyed Texas Tech 52-34. This week I am looking at Arizona beating No. 19 UCLA. I like what B.J. Denker has been able to do through the air for the Wildcats and think the legs of Ka'Deem Carey could really give the Bruins fits.
ND: The Lions started out strong against the Illini and then sputtered out for an extended period. Christian Hackenberg had a solid all-around performance, but as you have been stressing this season, Mark, he still does not have his mental clock down. He's holding onto the ball too long and is not comfortable tossing the ball away. This is not that surprising for young quarterbacks who feel they can make plays on every snap. The biggest pleasant surprise of the game was the dominance of Bill Belton, who ran for 201 yards and was Penn State's first 200+ yard rusher since Larry Johnson did it against Michigan State in 2002. Belton was determined and fierce in his performance and has really taken advantage of the opportunity.
Allen Robinson showed again he is one of the best wideout targets in the nation, making clutch catches at critical moments. It was great to also see tight end Kyle Carter grab a touchdown in overtime, although it was his only grab on the day. The tight ends have to get more involved in the offense. And on the whole the receivers had a lot of dropped balls that were catchable.
Defensively, the concern is primarily with the secondary. They continue to leave huge gaps open for receivers to easily exploit. I think many fans have forgiven their lapses due to the final interception by Ryan Kieser, but if the secondary cannot nail down their coverage they will get exploited throughout the course of the tail end of the season. Mike Hull continued to lead the charge on defense grabbing 13 tackles (seven solo). The defensive front has to get a more consistent push up front to not only disrupt the pocket, but to help the secondary by forcing decisions. One guy who continues to impress me on the line is Anthony Zettel. Every time he is in he seems to make a play; this time it was a critical 11-yard sack, which snuffed out Illinois' late drive in regulation.
MH: I think Penn State has shown they have talent at key spots on offense. They have a talented, albeit young quarterback, a premier wide receiver a decent offensive line and a running back who has the ability to open up games. The key is consistency and getting other weapons into the mix. Nirav, I think your point on the tight ends is a good one; the ends were instrumental to the intermediate passing game in 2012, but this year they have not been nearly as potent with a decent amount of dropped balls.
On the other side, you nailed it with the secondary. These guys are playing soft coverage and I still feel that more zone work would help to seam up those gaps. It's frustrating to see opposing wideouts have a 10-yard halo around them on third and long. Sure, the defense stiffened when they needed to, but the three and out a the close of regulation was the PSU defense's first of the second half. Coach Butler has got to get these guys more consistent, and I think more aggressive as well. Playing soft allowed Illinois to bounce back and take the lead in a game that should not have been that close if they had kept the gas down after the first two drives.
SCOUTING THE OTHER SIDE
ND: This is not your father's Minnesota team. The Gopers have been able to put points on the board, but what stands out is while they have a Top 20 rushing offense, they also feature a passing offense that ranks 116th in yards. That should bode well for PSU's secondary, although they cannot rely on stats in this one. Minnesota has Philip Nelson, a 6-2, 215 pound sophomore quarterback who has gone 64 for 114 for 942 yards and eight touchdowns. He's been sacked nine times, so getting that push is critical. He's coming off his best passing performance of the year against Indiana where he went 16 for 23 for 298 yards and four touchdowns, so the Gopher staff may be feeling more confident with him tossing the ball more. On the ground, the Gophers rely on David Cobb, a 5-11,225 pound back who has 803 yards on 18 carries and six touchdowns. In the last two games they have had him run and average of 30 times where he combined for 326 yards and one touchdown. Minnesota also uses freshman QB Mitch Leidner as a running threat. On the season he has 381 yards on 81 carries, but only three passing attempts in the past three games, so if you see Leidner, chances are he's running.
Defensively, Minnesota is ranked sixth in the conference, giving up 24.9 points per game and 383.9 yards per game. When it comes to run defense, the Gophers are also ranked No. 6 in the Big Ten, surrendering 142.2 yards on the ground per game. On pass defense, they are No. 9 in conference, giving up 241.7 yards per game through the air.
MH: Minnesota does not look to have a dangerous passing game, but it can be enough to keep the linebackers guessing and the pressure off of the defensive front. The Gophers don't have a receiver in the Big Ten's Top 10 for receptions or yardage, but given PSU's secondary woes they do not have the luxury to ease up in this one. The focus of their offense tends to be Cobb, who is No. 5 in conference play, averaging 89.2 yards per game.
On the other side of the ball, Minnesota is led in tackles by junior linebacker Damien Wilson with 50 tackles (28 solo). Also, the Lions have to keep tabs on defensive end Theiren Cockran, who is third in the Big Ten in sacks with 5.5 and has 8 tackles for loss. He is fast, aggressive and can disrupt passers and create opportunities.
MATCHUP TO KICK BACK AND ENJOY
ND: I think this will feature an interesting matchup between Penn State's defensive front and David Cobb. The Nittany Lion line has to contain Cobb and play a style we saw against Michigan in order to push the game onto the Minnesota passing offense.
MH: I am not sure how enjoyable it will be, but it will be intriguing to see how Penn State's secondary woes line up against Minnesota's passing woes. Whichever unit gets an edge in this battle should have a major edge in the game.
KEYS TO THE GAME
ND: This game comes down to consistency on both sides of the ball. If Penn State plays solid all-around and can clog up running lanes and play more aggressive covering the pass they should be able to slow down the Gopher offense.
MH: I think a lot of this game comes down to how the defensive front for Penn State handles the Minnesota offensive line. If they can make things difficult for Cobb they should have the ability to snuff out drives and create opportunities for the offense.
ND: Penn State's inability to stop the pass will once again be center stage in this road game. I think Minnesota pulls the upset and throws for over 400 yards.
Minnesota 31, Penn State 21
MH: If the secondary can get a adequate handle on things I think Penn State could match up pretty well in this one.
Penn State 31, Minnesota 24
Until next time,
Fight On State!