Penn State Preview: Minnesota

Penn State v. MINNESOTA (Photo by Steve Manuel)

The Football Letter/Steve Manuel

UNIVERSITY PARK — Each week, we’ll tell you what to expect, what to keep an eye on, and where and when you can catch the Nittany Lions on fall Saturdays this season.

Game details: No. 4 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) at No. 17 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0).

Venue: TCF Bank Stadium, featuring a capacity of 50,805.

Weather forecast (via AccuWeather): High of 39 degrees and mostly cloudy.

The line: Penn State –6.5

Last week: Penn State and Minnesota each had a bye.

All-time series: Penn State leads 9-5.

Last meeting (2016): Penn State earned a dramatic 29-26 overtime win at Beaver Stadium, as Saquon Barkley rushed for a touchdown on the Nittany Lions’ first play in the extra session. The play helped spark an impressive run that included a win over No. 2 Ohio State en route to a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl appearance for the Nittany Lions.

Throwback classic (1993): Here’s a good trivia tidbit for fans: Minnesota was Penn State’s first Big Ten opponent, with the Nittany Lions earning a 38-20 victory on Sept. 4, 1993, at Beaver Stadium. The teams combined for more than 100 pass attempts, as Bobby Engram became the first player in program history to catch four touchdown passes.

Overview: Coming into the season, there was a good chance Penn State would have a November showdown against another undefeated team. The smart thinking had the game occurring in Columbus, though, not Minneapolis. Ohio State still looms, though Penn State will need to dispatch the upstart Gophers, having an against-the-odds kind of season that the typically ordinary Big Ten West teams have once a decade or so. Northwestern last season and Iowa in 2015 are two recent examples.

Perhaps the most impressive trait for this year’s Nittany Lions squad is their collective focus. They’ve won big and small, stayed ahead in tough environments, started fast, and have also closed out games. There’s a sense they’re truly battle-tested, so whatever they see Saturday against Minnesota, it won’t be anything they haven’t seen before.

Penn State wins if: the Nittany Lions hold the Gophers to less than 28 points. Minnesota’s offense has been consistently good all season, scoring at least 28 each game and averaging 41 in its five Big Ten contests. Gaudy numbers, even if against supposedly the weakest division in the conference and Rutgers and Maryland.

Minnesota wins if: the Gophers’ ground game can wear down the Nittany Lions. Based on numbers, Minnesota can win a shootout, though the Gophers will need to sustain drives that’ll test Penn State’s depth along the defensive line and in the linebacking corp. Minnesota averages 205 rushing yards per game, with Penn State allowing only 68. If the Gophers finish Saturday anywhere near the latter mark, their chances of winning are incredibly slim.

Keep an eye on: the offensive play-calling. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne has faced more criticism than you’d think for a team 8-0 and ranked No. 4 — and it’s easy to argue most of that criticism has been unwarranted — and it’ll be interesting to see if he dials up anything unexpected after having an extra week to think over the game plan.

Trivia tidbit: Penn State’s been ranked in the AP poll for 51 straight weeks, the third-longest streak in program history.

Predictions

John Patishnock: Penn State 28, Minnesota 24

Vince Lungaro: Penn State 33, Minnesota 20

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