Gophers’ strong ground game could trouble PSU

MINNEAPOLIS – Five things to look for as Penn State looks to end its road woes against a good Minnesota team that’s won three straight Big Ten games.

No. 1: Double trouble

At first glance, Minnesota wouldn’t appear to be the kind of team that would give a typical Penn State defense trouble. The Golden Gophers average only 145 yards passing per game, and while they run for 221, the Lions traditionally have had success against run-heavy, one-dimensional teams.

There are two issues, however.

First, this is far from a typical Penn State defense. The Lions haven’t been able to stop the pass at all, and they’re giving up 28 points per game.

Second, Minnesota isn’t as one-dimensional as the numbers would indicate, and that ultimately could be what dooms Penn State.

The Gophers threw for 325 yards last week to rally for a 42-39 win at Indiana. That was 200 yards more than they were averaging entering the game.

What last week showed is that Minnesota can throw the ball when it has to. It just hasn’t had to much in getting to 7-2 because of its strong running game.

Starting quarterback Philip Nelson passed for 298 yards a week ago and has looked better and better throwing the ball the past three games.

If Nelson struggles and/or the Lions suddenly make a huge improvement defending the pass, then PSU should win this game. But after looking so poorly against the pass all year, there’s not much reason to believe things will change today for Penn State.

No. 2: Tempo trouble

The Gophers, because of their running game, like to control the clock and keep pounding away at defenses. In short, they play traditional Penn State football.

The dilemma for the Lions is that their offense is at its best when coach Bill O’Brien turns to his NASCAR package. They have moved the ball effectively against most competition the past two years in that hurry-up, no-huddle scheme.

But O’Brien acknowledged earlier this week that playing too fast on offense can be dangerous against a team like Minnesota because, if drives stall out quickly, it gives the ball right back to the Gophers and their ball-control offense.

So what does O’Brien do? Be aggressive and go with the offense’s strength, trusting that the NASCAR offense can produce a lot of points? Or does he try to slow things down with his own running game, hoping the offense can sustain long, time-consuming drives that result in touchdowns rather than field goals?

O’Brien is at his best when he follows his instincts by being aggressive. If Penn State is going to win, it’s going to be because the offense has a big day, which means rolling the dice and running NASCAR a lot.

No. 3: Play inspired

The Lions have not done that on the road yet this season. They barely beat a weak Syracuse team (23-17) on a neutral field and laid eggs at Indiana (44-24) and at Ohio State (63-14).

This game will be a good indicator of the leadership on the PSU squad given the uninspiring efforts away from home.

It’s a huge game for the Gophers because it could mean their eighth win, and potentially last of the regular season with Wisconsin and Michigan State coming up. A win today, therefore, means a better bowl game.

This is another noon kickoff – 11 a.m. in Minnesota – and it has to be said once again that PSU has long had trouble getting up for these kind of games. Beating the Gophers has rarely qualified as a big win, but it absolutely would be in this situation.

No. 4: Seven up

Penn State’s secondary has been heavily criticized, but the front seven hasn’t played well for much of the season and has had all sorts of trouble getting to the quarterback.

Minnesota is going to run the football. Bank on it. The Lions know this, so their defensive line and linebackers have to win battles in the trenches, shed blockers and stuff the run way Penn State has always been able to do.

Tackle DaQuan Jones has looked great at times and invisible at others. This is the type of game where he could have a major impact.

No. 5: Player to watch

It’s time for PSU quarterback Christian Hackenberg to start playing with more consistency. He’s still just a freshman, but that excuse starts to go out the window by the eighth game.

He certainly has the talent and can make great throws – such as last week’s game-winning TD to Kyle Carter in overtime – but Hackenberg needs to settle into games quicker, be more accurate and cut down on his mistakes for the Lions to win on the road against a quality team.

Prediction: Minnesota 28, Penn State 24

Follow Giger’s live game updates and analysis on Twitter @CoryGiger.