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Know Your Foe: Minnesota Golden Gophers

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It’s only the biggest game in the last 50 years of Minnesota football...

Maryland v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The good news? Penn State is coming off a bye week after a hard three-game stretch against Iowa, Michigan and Michigan State. The bad news? Penn State has another tough three game stretch consisting of a No. 13 Minnesota, a 7-2 Indiana, and No. 3 Ohio State. The Nittany Lions will start that stretch on Saturday when they travel to Minneapolis to take on the 8-0 Golden Gophers.

University of Minnesota

Location: Minneapolis, MN
Enrollment: 51,147

Minnesota Football Facts:

Home Stadium: TCF Bank Stadium
Head Coach: P.J Fleck (3rd season, 19-13)
Conference: Big Ten
Conference Title(s): 18
Overall Bowl Record: 8-12

Series History:

Saturday’s match-up is the 16th time these two have met up on the gridiron. The last meeting was in 2016, a game that many will point to as the game when the program turned it around with Trace McSorley forcing overtime and Saquon Barkley scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime. Their next game out, the Nittany Lions took down the No. 2 Ohio State Buckeyes 24-21.

That being said, the two teams play each other tough historically, rarely are there blowouts. Only 5 of the 15 match-ups so far have been settled by 10-points or more. The Gophers have had Penn State’s number in the past, winning four-straight between 1999 and 2004. That of course, includes the shocking 1999 upset up the then No. 2 Nittany Lions.

After 2004, however, it’s been mostly all Penn State with the Nittany Lions winning five of six.

Last Season (7-6, 3-6)

In P.J Fleck’s second season, the Gophers saw an improvement, going from 5-7 in 2017 to a 7-5 team in 2018 with a Quick Lane Bowl win over Georgia Tech. After a strong 3-0 start, the Gophers struggled over a four-week stretch, dropping four-straight to Maryland, Iowa, Ohio State, and Nebraska. After that, they split their last four regular season games including winning Paul Bunyan’s Axe over Wisconsin.

Recruiting and offseason:

The Golden Gophers had the 45th ranked recruiting class last cycle with 21 signees. The class also ranked 10th in the Big Ten. They also brought in three transfers including former four-star cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, who was originally at Michigan.

What they did last week: BYE week

The Golden Gophers had a bye last week after taking down Maryland 52-10 on October 26. It was the Gophers second bye week of the season after being inactive during the September 21 weekend.

Offense:

Minnesota’s offense has been dangerous all season and has been clicking on all cylinders the last few weeks. The Gophers are averaging 38.4 points per game, good for 14th in the nation. ESPN’s efficiency ratings, ranks the Gophers at No. 15 nationally with a rating of 75.0 For comparison, Penn State is rated at 84.8, which is sixth nationally.

The Gophers are a run-heavy offense, averaging 204.5 yards on 47 carries per game this season. That will create the match-up of the game to watch between the two programs as the Nittany Lions have the nation’s top rated rush defense, allowing 2.0 yards per carry. Senior running back Rodney Smith will be the running back to keep tabs on as he’s totaled 889 yards and seven touchdowns on 154 carries this season. He’s accounted for nearly 60% of all Minnesota’s carries this season.

The Gophers passing game is strong as well despite not relying on the pass all too much. They average just 21.8 attempts per game but are efficient in those games. As a team, Minnesota averages 225 yards per game. Quarterback Tanner Morgan is an efficient passer, he’s not prolific and he’s not a game manager but somewhere in between. This season, he’s completed 65.3% of his 173 passing attempts for 1,761-yards (10.2 yards per attempt), 18 touchdowns, and just four interceptions.

Minnesota has one of the most underrated wide receiver groups in the country this season, headlined by senior Tyler Johnson. Johnson has 43 receptions for 626 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Rashod Bateman can be just as dangerous with 31 receptions for 644 yards and six touchdowns. The last notable receiver to know is Chris Autman-Bell, the sophomore has 17 receptions for 288 yards and four touchdowns this season. It’s safe to say this is the best trio of receivers the Nittany Lions will have faced up to this point and the secondary will need to have the best game of their season.

Minnesota’s offensive line this season has been adequate, allowing 16 sacks so far this season. They’re an offensive line full of size, headlined by 6-foot-9, 400-pound offensive lineman Daniel Faalele and will present an unique test for the Nittany Lions front seven.

Defense:

Minnesota’s defense has been one of the better defenses in the Big Ten with a defense efficiency rating of 71.0. Opponents are averaging just 20 points per game against the Gophers with their last four opponents scoring 17 points or less. As a whole, the Gophers don’t give up much yardage with opponents averaging just 283.8 yards a game.

Opponents have more success through the air against Minnesota, but that success is minimal. Opponents on average are completing just over 50% of passes against the Gophers and are just 5.8 yards per attempt and 166.4 yards per game. Two teams have been able to throw against the Gophers this season with Fresno State and Purdue, both pass heavy offenses throwing for 275+ yards.

Teams will rack up yards on the ground against the Gophers but only due to volume. The Gophers are facing on average, 32.5 rushing attempts per game. With those 32.5 rushing attempts, opponents are only averaging 3.6 yards per carry. That being said,, they have yet to face a quality offensive line this season. For the Nittany Lions to win, they’ll need to find success on the ground.

The perhaps special thing about Minnesota’s defense is that there is no one dominant player. Their highest tackle total is just 46, their highest tackles for a loss count is 5.0, and their highest sack total is 3.5. Not exactly numbers that jump out on you. That means its’ a full-team effort with the Golden Gophers with full buy-in. So while the talent may not necessarily be there, their a dangerous unit.

The most dangerous player the Nittany Lions will have to keep track of is redshirt sophomore defensive back Antoine Winfield who has 46 tackles, two sacks, and five interceptions this season.

Special Teams:

Minnesota is one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to special teams efficiency, coming in at 127. Which creates an interesting match-up as the Nittany Lions are ranked 2nd in the country in the category, only behind Memphis.

A deeper look into the stats prove that accurate. In the kicking game, the Gophers have missed two extra points and three field goal attempts out of eight total. Their punting has been below average as well. Punter Jacob Herbers is averaging just 38.7 yards per punt this season.

When it comes to returns, the Gophers are averaging just 18.9 yards per kick return and 4.8 yards per punt return.