Penn Statement: Lions Whip Gophers

In a stirring come-from-behind victory at Northwestern a week ago, the Penn State football program showed it had the heart to contend in the Big Ten. In a 44-14 thumping of No. 18 Minnesota at Beaver Stadium Saturday, Joe Paterno's Nittany Lions proved they have the talent to be a player in the league race, too.

Call it a Penn Statement, one where the Lions, following back-to-back losing seasons, imposed their will on a quality opponent. In doing so, they improved to 5-0, beat their win total of the entire 2004 campaign, ended a four-game losing streak vs. U of M and paved the way for a move back into the Top 25 for the first time since the second week of the 2003 season.

“To be at Penn State and feel like we don't have respect, that's wrong,” cornerback Alan Zemaitis said. “We want to show that we're back.”

The Golden Gophers came into the game scoring 46.2 points per outing while allowing just 19. Coach Glen Mason, a Woody Hayes disciple, built a powerhouse offense around powerhouse back Laurence Maroney, who had been leading the nation in rushing (174.5 yards per game).

The attack is designed to win battles of attrition, which is exactly what U of M did in a 42-35 double-overtime victory against No. 11 Purdue a week earlier. But Saturday's action would not include such theatrics. Nittany Lion Ethan Kilmer decked Maroney on the opening kickoff, and the rest of the team methodically punished the Gophers the rest of the day.

The defense was its usual marauding self, rebounding from an up-and-down showing at Northwestern by holding Minnesota without a first down until late in the second quarter. Maroney had 14 yards in the opening half.

Defensive tackle Matthew Rice said he read a story where Maroney was talking about padding his stats vs. the Lions. It didn't happen. He finished with 48 yards on 16 carries.

“I think he was frustrated as soon as he stepped off the plane,” Rice cracked.

There was a bit of spotty play on special teams, including allowing a pair of long kickoff returns. But on one of them, PSU place-kicker Kevin Kelly, all 5-foot-7, 170 pounds of him, decked Maroney while he was trying to block.

The offensive line had its best big-game showing since the destruction of Nebraska in 2002, helping Penn State crank out 539 total yards.

But the offense's bruising ways did not end there. While much has been made of State's new four-wideout attack, in this game it did not rely on trickery to beat a defense.

In fact, the PSU skills players delivered as many blows as they received. Quarterback Michael Robinson flattened safety Brandon Owens on a second-quarter scramble. Owens didn't return. After seeing the play on the stadium's replay board, Rice said “a lot of words I can't say on the mic.”

Running back Tony Hunt took a third-quarter handoff, motored up the right sideline and steam-rolled corner Trumaine Banks.

“The biggest thing the coaching staff talked about during the week was how physical this team is, how they would come out and try to intimidate us,” Hunt said.

To the contrary, the Lions dominated on both sides, cranking out 35 first downs (the second-highest total under Paterno) while limiting the Gophers to 13. State ran a season-high 91 plays and won the time-of-possession battle, 35:18-24:42.

The key play came in the second quarter. Up 10-0 and facing fourth-and-1 at the U of M 9, Penn State sent in a two-tight end offense. There was no mystery what was going to happen. And sure enough, Hunt took a handoff and blasted two yards for a first down. Three plays later it was 17-0.

The run-oriented Gophers were in a deep hole from which they'd never escape. The Lions, meanwhile, continue to have the look of an outfit emerging from the doldrums.

“Hopefully it gave us some confidence,” Robinson said. “Hopefully we made a statement today.”

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