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ND: The Lions finished off the out of conference schedule in grand fashion last week with a crushing of FCS Eastern Illinois. But, now the Lions must face a couple of weeks of far stronger competition. The two best teams that the Lions have faced are Iowa and…Temple. This week, the Gophers come to Beaver Stadium. After losing a close game to Wisconsin, Minnesota beat Purdue. Coach Brewster has turned this program around from a couple of years ago. We'll see whether he can crack the top echelon, which is what he was hired to do.
MH: This should be a telling game for the Nittany Lions. Minnesota has a pretty high-flying offense that should serve as an interesting test for PSU's secondary. Last week Penn State took care of business early, but I am not sure it really told us anything substantial about the team's progress. This week should do a better job of that.
Who: Minnesota at No. 14 Penn State
When: October 17th at 3:30 pm ET and 12:30 pm PT
Where: Beaver Stadium in University Park, PA
Series: Penn State leads 6-4
TV: ABC Regional
Line: Penn State favored by 16
Other Big Games This Weekend:
ND: The top spot in the ACC Coastal division is in play when the Yellow Jackets come to Blacksburg to face the Hokies. Georgia Tech had a huge, exhausting win over FSU last week with the game finishing well after midnight. Meanwhile, the Hokies have played in 2 huge games already this season. I like the Hokies in this one for a number of reasons. The Hokies have the ground game finally clicking and their defense is very stout and will come up big against the triple option attack. I like the Hokies big in this game. Big.
MH: How about the Red River Shootout? No. 20 Oklahoma against No. 3 Texas. That should be a telling game for the Big 12 race and serve as a true indicator for where the Longhorns are in the scheme of things. Also, No. 25 Notre Dame hosts No. 6 USC. Can Weis and the Domers give USC a game? Under Weis it hasn't been a pretty run against the Trojans.
ND: Mark, keep an eye on that Notre Dame and USC game. The Irish have not beaten USC since 2001 and the games have been a total disaster the last couple of years. But, I think the Irish finally have an offense that can keep pace with the Trojans. I'm not convinced that the USC offense can light up the scoreboard and I think that defense is susceptible too. Notre Dame's defense may not be very good but their offense is able to get into the endzone. I think Coach Weiss gets it done and keeps their BCS bid hopes alive.
MH: I am not sold the Irish even play defense, so I am not quite sold on your pick there, Nirav. My pick this week is in the Big Ten; I can see the Badgers, who play host to No. 11 Iowa, knocking off the Hawkeyes if they actually protect the ball unlike Penn State and Michigan could do. It should be interesting to see Clay matchup against Iowa's front four. If Wisconsin can play their game and get a solid defensive effort, I think Camp Randall gives them the edge in this clash.
ND: The Lions had a tremendous amount of success against Eastern Illinois last week. But, that's what was expected. The team certainly got some good work in and the offensive line should have gotten a good feel for how they need to work together to really get the running game moving. In fact, the last two weeks have given the offensive line a boost of confidence. Unfortunately, injuries may have taken McCormack and Pannell out of this game. That leaves Ako Poti at the right tackle position. The reason for concern is not that the running game relies on continuity at the offensive line but rather that Minnesota has a very complicated blitz package. There is often an expression used that a team can blitz from anywhere and everywhere. But, the Gophers literally do blitz from anywhere and everywhere. The offensive line communication is going to be key. Look for the Lions to also use more Mickey Shuler as an extra blocker to help with these blitzes. The real key is going to be the decision making of Clark. He's going to have to deliver the ball quickly and decisively. And, if nothing is available he has to throw that football away and live to play another down. Look for the Lions to finally start using more of those flanker screens that were such a staple of the offense the last couple of years. With the athletic WRs, there is no reason not to get the ball in their hands. The secondary is all under 6-foot, which means that the slants should be wide open. I think Powell can be a huge, huge weapon if used properly.
Meanwhile, the running game has to get off of the ground. Green has shown a tremendous amount of growth since the beginning of the season. With him and Royster hitting their groove, the Lions running attack might finally be back to normal. However, the Gophers are good against the run. Lee Campbell has 6.5 TFLs while Nate Triplett is leading the nation in solo tackles (40). Both of these linebackers attack the football and make plays. The Lions will have to get a hat on these guys. There is no way that Royster or Green can be expected to beat them in the hole without assistance.
The Gophers are very average on defense ranking No. 77 in total defense. But, they attack the football and can make life difficult for the Lions if the offensive line does not come out to play. In the end, I think the running game will finally show itself against a quality opponent and that balance will help the Lions score just enough points.
MH: I will tell you the good and bad out of the EIU game for me revolved around Daryll Clark. He was masterful in his ball distribution and spearheaded some great drives with short passes and long bombs. The bad was not his fault, but was related to the Penn State coaches refusing to pull him early and giving Kevin Newsome some much needed, invaluable game reps. I do like what Clark is showing fans after his rough bout dealing with the Iowa loss, and I think the receiving corp led by Derek Moye and Chaz Powell have been very impressive and versatile.
With Campbell and Triplett I would like to see more screens used which could really leverage the speed of Powell, Evan Royster and Devon Smith to pick up yards and first downs. Penn State will have to use intermediate passes to pull back the linebackers and help open up some running room for Royster and Stephfon Green. I expect the Gophers will bring the 'backers in tight on the line early to make Clark beat them, so he and the receivers will have to open things up. I think this could be another big opportunity for Andrew Quarless to make some catches and pick up some key first downs. Also, fullback Joe Suhey could be a real unexpected weapon out of the backfield in this one.
As you stated Nirav, Minnesota's blitzing and the disguises they use could cause fits for the offensive line, so I think we may see the offensive coaches keeping a running back or tight end in to give some additional protection to Clark to give him time to set up. He has to be more aware though and be sure to get the ball off or throw it away as the pressure descends on him.
ND: The million dollar question is whether Sean Lee and Navorro Bowman are finally going to be able to play together since the first series of the Akron game. Though Lee is still a game-time decision, we have reported on FightonState.com that he has been participating in drills and even pre-game warm-up last week. So, I think we'll see No. 45 on the field this weekend. That's going to be huge this week because the Gopher offensive attack has taken upon a bit of a metamorphosis. Against Wisconsin two weeks ago, the Gophers threw the ball 30 times and ran the ball 28 times. Against Purdue last weekend, the Gophers threw the ball only 10 times (five completions) and ran the ball 44 times. The team had always shown a pretty good balance until last week. Purdue's rush defense is about the same as their pass defense so I have to believe that Brewster wants to focus on a physical brand of football now that the weather is changing and because Minnesota now plays in an outdoor stadium. Duane Bennett is the primary back. He has tallied 283 yards this year with a 4.6 average. DeLeon Eskridge comes in off the bench, much like Green, and has still run for 216 yards. But, the guy to keep an eye out for is MarQuies Gray. Gray is the No. 14 QB in last year's class and the Gophers have been using him to run the Wildcat. The Lions will have to be ready for that formation. It's not too much of a change from when Weber is in the game. Weber runs the read option so whether it's Gray or Weber, Eric Latimore and Jack Crawford have to attack the football while Odrick and Ogbu push the line of scrimmage back. Though the Gophers have focused on running the ball, with Lee and Bowman roaming the field, I don't see them having much success other than a couple of plays here and there.
Where the Lions have to be worried is in the passing game. Every team has been able to throw on the Lions. The Lions keep using the 2-deep zone that is keeping receivers from busting big plays but it is also leaving large open gaps for receivers. Weber has one of the best receiving threats in the nation. Eric Decker is ninth in the country in receiving yards per game with 114.83. His speed and size make him a tough guy to cover. As a result, when Weber gets into trouble, he just heaves the ball in Weber's direction and hopes that Weber can out-leap the defender for the ball. And it has worked. Decker has caught almost 50 percent of Weber's completions and he has caught all but one of his TDs. That's one heck of a duo. Sukay and Astorino are going to have to be ready to help over-the-top on those jump balls without triggering a pass interference. The key is going to be getting pressure on Weber. He has been prone to throwing picks because he's trying to make plays when pressured.
This Gopher offense is starting to change its face but there are still play-makers in the passing game, which will come into play. I see the Lions slowing down the run, which will allow the defense to pin their ears back to go after Weber in obvious passing situations.
MH: Let's start with Minnesota's biggest weapon in Decker. He's going to have success, but I expect that the Lions will be able to play him well with D'Anton Lynn leading the charge. PSU is generally solid when it comes to containing big receivers, ala Illinois' Benn. However, Decker will help to open things up for the entire Gopher offense. The big issue for me and the X-factor is the safety play. Drew Astorino has been pretty consistent, but Nick Sukay has been sporadic with his play. The safeties have to be on and give solid support to the corners. PSU fans should expect Coach Bradley to play his standard cover zone to keep everything in front and not given any "momentum-building" big plays.
I think the Gopher's success all-around will be dictated by Penn State's defensive line play. If the Lions can get consistent pressure on; enough to shift and move the pocket quickly, it should really help the PSU secondary with their coverage. If they have a tough time getting a push, like against Iowa, Weber will have time which will facilitate some key completions which will pull back PSU's coverage.
Indications are looking like the chance of Sean Lee getting back on the field Saturday is strong. If Lee and Navorro Bowman are in the lineup together, I think it changes the dynamic of the game, not only giving a spark to the defense, but providing pressure on the wings to force the run game inside for Jared Odrick, Ollie Ogbu and crew to address. Hopefully, if Lee does that the field, the PSU crowd gives him an appropriate welcome back.
ND: The Lions may have found a kick returner in Justin Brown. He showed good hands and good speed against Eastern Illinois. The real question will be if Joe has the confidence to put him out there in a big game. Hopefully, he will. Penn State is ranked 99th in the country in punt returns with an average that is just under 5 yards per attempt. Meanwhile, Minnesota is one of the best in the country in kickoff returns averaging 27.00 yards per return and Penn State is giving up well over 23 yards per return. Field position in this game could be huge and the kick return is a key component of that.
MH: True Brown was a nice change of pack in the return game, but he saw spot duty this past Saturday. The question is will the staff use him regularly from here on out? What I want to see is if Ryan Breen gets another shot at handling kickoffs. PSU needs a shot in the arm on special teams and I'd like to see him get a chance to impact the coverage game.
Matchup to Kick Back and Enjoy:
ND: Mark, I like the matchup of the PSU running attack against these Gopher Linebackers. Nate Triplett is solid and Lee Campbell is always making plays behind the line of scrimmage. We'll see how the PSU offensive line and the combo of Royster and Green are able to perform against one of the better linebacking tandems in the conference.
MH: Nirav, I think the matchup between Decker and the Penn State secondary will be interesting to watch and a significant factor in this game. I doubt we see PSU play up and tight, but they will need to contain Decker and make sure they limit his yards after catch since he is going to pull in some balls no matter what.
Keys to the Game:
ND: Both teams are not offensive juggernauts when facing a solid defense. As a result, I think the team that is able to limit turnovers and force the other to drive the length of the field is going to come out on top. Minnesota has a turnover margin of 0 while Penn State is -2. We'll see who can take care of the football on Saturday.
MH: I am with you on ball protection. Penn State cannot be sloppy or careless with the ball. They need to protect the rock and make sure they don't shoot themselves in the foot. If they do this could be a long afternoon.
ND: This is going to be a more difficult game for the Lions than the last two. But, I see the Lions forcing a couple of turnovers in the third quarter, which help the Lions get ahead and stay ahead.
Penn State 24, Minnesota 13
MH: I think this will be a tight game through three quarters, but PSU pulls away in the end as long as they can protect that ball.
Penn State 23, Minnesota 16
Until next time,
Fight On State!