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Game Preview: Penn State vs. Minnesota

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Can a trip back to the drawing board save the Lions from a second straight defeat?

Penn State v Minnesota Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Whether or not you believe that James Franklin’s job is on the line this year, it would be really nice for Penn State to bounce back from that disaster at Michigan with a nice, tasty Big Ten victory over Minnesota. The Gophers are undefeated so far, but Penn State has been tested harder. It should be a hotly contested battle for the Governor’s Victory Bell.

Penn State (2-2) vs. Minnesota (3-0)

Kickoff: 3:30 PM, Beaver Stadium, State College, PA

The Betting Line: Penn State -3

TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin (play-by-play), Chuck Long (analyst)

Weather: Highs in the mid-60s with an 80-percent chance of rain

COACHES:

James Franklin:

PENN STATE RECORD: 16-14, 3rd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 40-29, 6th Year

VS. MINNESOTA: First Meeting

Tracy Claeys:

MINNESOTA RECORD: 5-4, 2nd Year

OVERALL RECORD: 5-4, 2nd Year

VS. PENN STATE: First Meeting (was acting head coach for the 2013 game, which the Gophers won 24-10)

...NOW THE FUN PART

MINNESOTA OFFENSE VS PENN STATE DEFENSE

After the Lions were mowed down by Michigan last weekend, we know that Minnesota is going to test Penn State’s front seven over and over again this Saturday. The question is, who is going to be doing most of the running? Shannon Brooks missed the first two games of the season due to a foot injury, but he looked good against Colorado State in his first game action of the season. The sophomore tailback gained 85 yards and scored a touchdown on 13 carries while running behind a Minnesota line that had to replace three of five starters from last year’s squad. However, fellow sophomore Rodney Smith got the most carries in that game, rushing 17 times for 99 yards and a pair of scores. It looks like we’ll be seeing a mixture of both guys this Saturday with senior quarterback Mitch Leidner and junior tailback Kobe McCrary sprinkled in.

Penn State is likely to be without Brandon Bell and Jason Cabinda once again against Minnesota, so it will be up to Brandon Smith as well as underclassmen linebackers Cam Brown and Manny Bowen to slow down the Gophers’ attack (although we expect more experienced guys like Koa Farmer and Von Walker to pitch in as well). If the front seven is able to get some stops, Minnesota might be forced to throw the ball, and that’s not necessarily a good thing for the Lions. Leidner has completed 65 percent of his throws this year for 7.88 yards per pass, four touchdowns, and one interception, but most of that was in his last two games against Indiana State and Colorado State. In the opener against major-conference opponent Oregon State, Leidner went 13-for-26 with 130 yards. We’ll learn on Saturday if that performance was just opening night jitters or a sign that Leidner is due for regression in conference play.

If Minnesota does have success through the air, it will likely be because of Drew Wolitarsky, the only Gophers pass-catcher to record more than six receptions or 90 receiving yards this season. The senior wide receiver has led Minnesota in receiving in all three of their games this year, so the Lions can cause the play-action offense some problems if they’re able to shut him down. The chances of that will only be greater if Grant Haley is able to return this week. The injured cornerback is listed atop the depth chart across from fellow starter John Reid.

MINNESOTA DEFENSE VS PENN STATE OFFENSE

The Penn State offensive line held up in games against Pitt and Temple, and the Lions moved the ball effectively in both games. That game in Ann Arbor, however, was a throwback to last season with the line getting bullied by a strong and experienced Michigan front seven. The good news is that Penn State probably won’t see another unit that fierce for the rest of the season, but how the offensive line will fare against the rest of the conference is still a big question mark. Minnesota hasn’t yielded many yards on the ground thus far, but they also haven’t faced the type of competition that the Lions have line up against. James Franklin said in his press conference this week that the team is still looking for different ways to get Saquon Barkley the ball in space, where he can be especially dangerous. It will also help the team out if the sensational sophomore concentrates more on gaining the yardage in front of him instead of gunning for the big play.

In the passing game, the cool, calm McSorley that we saw against Temple was nowhere to be found last Saturday, as he was constantly on the run from Michigan defenders. This week, the young signal caller should get a bit of a break as pass rushing sensation Tai’yon Devers has been ruled out due to an ankle injury. Devers has been responsible for only three tackles this year, but all three were sacks that resulted in forced fumbles. You might remember one in particular against Colorado State that went viral last weekend. Junior defensive tackle Steven Richardson is the only other Gopher with more than one sack this season. He also leads all returning Minnesota players with 3.5 sacks in 2015, so hopefully the Lions can neutralize Richardson and give their man some time to find his targets.

That would be welcome considering that Penn State wide receivers were absolutely smothered by Jourdan Lewis and company against Michigan. In fact, Barkley and Mike Gesicki were the only Penn State pass-catchers with more than one reception and more than zero receiving yards in that game. While it was a good sign for both guys to be so involved in the passing game, the Penn State offense should be more focused on opening up downfield threats against Minnesota. Later on in the Michigan game, McSorley started to take risks by trusting his receivers on deep balls, and it resulted in some pass interference gains. Look for him to go deep a little earlier in this one, especially if the running game gets off to a slow start.

SPECIAL TEAMS

It’s really hard to find something to complain about when it comes to Penn State special teams these days. Blake Gillikin might have outkicked his coverage on that first punt against Michigan, but he’s been a net positive overall. Meanwhile, Tyler Davis is still perfect on field goals and Joey Julius continues to clobber opposing kick returners. His next victim might be Minnesota’s Jalen Myrick, the senior defensive back who is averaging 23.43 yards per return in 2016.

Meanwhile, kicker Emmit Carpenter has been very impressive for the Gophers this year with five field goals made on five tries. Even better is that four of those have come from beyond 40 yards away, so Minnesota will be perfectly capable of striking as soon as it crosses the 30-yard line.

PREDICTION

Penn State 27, Minnesota 20

I think this one will be a lot like the Pitt game with Penn State struggling to stop a powerful rushing attack but being able to counter effectively on offense. Against both Pitt and Michigan, the Lions’ defense stiffened up in the second half, so I’m hoping they get to that point sooner in this one and keep the Gophers from literally running away with the game. If that happens, there should be enough opportunities for the offense to score... as long as it avoids the costly turnovers that spelled doom in Pittsburgh.