It’s surprising enough that a Big Ten West team stayed perfect until week 11 of the college football season. But the fact it’s Minnesota who remains unscathed is even more surprising, as Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin were thought to be better equipped.
But the Gophers get their first true elite test this week with Penn State, a top-four team in the college football playoff rankings. The Nittany Lions boast two top-20 wins and give up less than 10 points in Big Ten games.
They’re led by a dynamic pass-rush, with ends Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos combining for 10.5 sacks. PSU gives up the least amount of explosive drives and is 3rd in opponent touchdown rate. They don’t break in the red zone but also don’t bend much otherwise, giving up less than two yards a carry on the ground (best in the nation).
Minnesota is a nice story, but can they hang with a team of this caliber? They’ve certainly shown a knack for blowing a game open, as QB Tanner Morgan is averaging over 10 yards an attempt. Wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman combine for the most receiving yards, 1,270, by any 1-2 punch in the league.
Here’s how the rest of these two teams stack up, with Penn State coming in as 6 ½-point road favorites, according to BetNow.
Minnesota Offense vs Penn State Defense
Johnson and Bateman have been the catalysts to the FBS’ 14th-ranked offense. Bateman has the type of speed that gets him over 20 yards a reception, and good size at 6’2”. Johnson is also 6’2 with precise route-running abilities.
Though he’s not the biggest corner at 5’10”, CB John Reid provides a big test for one of these WRs. He has strong hands and puts himself in a good position, a reason for his five defended passes and pair of interceptions. Tariq Castro-Field is even more impressive so far, with eight PDs and two INTs.
This will be a premier matchup for these two teams. Minnesota must have balance, no matter how talented RB Rodney Smith (889 yards, 5.8 YPA) has been. PSU’s d-line stuffs the run at an alarming rate, giving up 100+ yards rushing to only two opponents.
It’s worth noting only one of the teams they held under 100 have a starting RB over 550 yards or 5.0 YPA. That was Maryland’s Javon Leake. So there’s still a test to be had with Smith and an offensive line ranked 33rd in line yards.
Where the Gophers should find concern is their protection on third down and on long down-and-distances. They’re 120th in opponents’ sack rate on passing downs and face a team ranked in the top-25 at delivering such sacks.
This is arguably the best front-seven in the country, with LB Micah Parsons (six TKFL) anchoring a unit that’s 9th in tackles-for-loss. They’re also 7th in efficiency against the pass to go with their dominance versus the ground game.
Leading this offense, Morgan is extremely efficient, his adjusted yards per-throw sitting at 11.2. He also has 18 TD passes to four INTs. On the flip side, though, he’s only faced one defense in the top-60, according to the Football Efficiency Index.
That one team, Illinois, ranks 32nd and held Morgan to 155 yards and a 52.9% completion percentage.
Penn State Offense vs Minnesota Defense
Speaking of efficient quarterbacks, PSU’s Sean Clifford fits that bill.
He’s one of 19 FBS quarterbacks with 20 or more TD passes (he has 20), but only four of those have a better TD-INT ratio. Three of those QBs go by names of Joe Burrow (LSU), Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama), and Justin Herbert (Oregon). That’s impressive company.
After throwing for four touchdowns against a then-top 10 FEI defense (Michigan State), there are no worries of him not coming up big against top-tier opponents. But Minnesota does throw a wrench into any game plan with shutdown corners that allow for many exotic blitzes.
The Gophers barely crack the top-50 in sacks, but they cause off-balanced throws more times than not and still rank 33rd in overall sack rate. This allows for opportunistic corner Antoine Winfield Jr. to make a lot of plays on the ball. Not that he wouldn’t already, as the future NFL draft pick has great reaction skills and range. His five interceptions lead a team with 11 total INTs, tied for the 4th-most in the power five.
Having adept blitzers like Carter Coughlin and rangy defenders like Winfield Jr. make for a lot of three-and-outs, as Minnesota is 15th in opponents’ first down rate. It’s also a big reason why the Gophers are 6th in time of possession.
The Nittany Lions, however, have matchups that could really test how much extra pressure Minnesota brings. Winfield Jr. going up against top wideout K.J. Hamler will make for an excellent matchup. Dealing with TE Pat Freiermuth is a different story for Minnesota, though, especially in the red zone. He tore through MSU’s defense last week with three TD grabs.
And between Noah Cain, Journey Brown, and Devyn Ford, PSU offers a unique stable of backs. Stopping this kind of depth, with all three RBs going over 5.0 YPA, is something Minnesota hasn’t had to deal with.
Minnesota vs Penn State Betting Prediction
Minnesota gave up 41 points in all of October, defeating opponents by a combined 168-41. But it also has the 103rd-ranked strength of schedule, according to College Football Reference.
Though they’ve easily dispatched most of their opponents, this pick has more to do with the completeness and surprising depth Penn State has.
Their run game boasts multiple dimensions, and even if Hamler gets shut down on the perimeter by Winfield Jr., all is not lost in the passing game. Minnesota is going to push the issue and try to fluster Clifford. But with a QB who can scramble and make plays out of the pocket, I don’t see it bothering him as much.
The Nittany Lions went through three top-10 defenses in a row (Iowa, Michigan, and Michigan State) with only one turnover and eight TD passes from Clifford. And that’s despite having average protection around the QB. Clifford is a gamer and Freirmuth is a piece the Gophers can’t account for.
Though Minnesota has the propensity to air the ball out and possess their own balance, no line they’ve played can prepare them for PSU’s.
I see the crowd and the intensity of head coach P.J. Fleck carrying Minnesota for a half or longer in this game. But when the fourth quarter rolls around and depth becomes key, Penn State will wear them down, both with their defensive front and three-headed run game.
Betting Prediction: Penn State 28 vs Minnesota 17