Another fast start and making Golden Gophers uncomfortable will serve Penn State well on the road
To be perfectly candid, I was shocked Penn State was ranked No. 4 in the inaugural College Football Playoff rankings. It wasn’t because the Nittany Lions didn’t belong, though. The fact the committee did an honest resume evaluation was refreshing.
Penn State is clearly a Top 5 team in the nation right now. That is not up for debate. And the Lions’ body of work is better than Clemson’s. What I like most about these inaugural rankings is the opportunity to settle it on the field is right there.
Moving Clemson out and not having a fly in the ointment like Notre Dame allowed the committee to marry the two SEC schools (LSU and Alabama) and the two Big Ten clubs (Penn State and Ohio State). They will play each other so the head-to-head will matter.
There’s a lot of boat to row – to use a little coach speak – for Penn State in the coming three weeks. But its refreshing for the Nittany Lions to have complete and utter control of their CFP destiny.
And it starts Saturday with an intriguing match-up at undefeated Minnesota. The Golden Gophers are an intriguing opponent.
My colleague on the Keystone Kickoff Show, Bob Flounders from PennLive/The Patriot News, pegged Minnesota as a sleeper big game in the preseason. Mr. Flounders knows football, so based on that advice I’ve paid close attention to coach P.J. Fleck’s squad all season.
Minnesota has not played anybody. That needs to be put out there as a fact. The Golden Gophers don’t have a non-conference win over a Power 5 school and their Big Ten opponents’ combined record is a less-than-stellar 17-28. Is their best win over Nebraska or Illinois?
Now, having said that about not playing anybody and barely surviving South Dakota State and Fresno State in tight games early, Minnesota is a dangerous team.
The Gophers are supremely confident because winning breeds it. They are very comfortable in their own football skin and they 100 percent believe what they are capable of is good enough to win any game.
And they aren’t wrong. Minnesota’s defense has made huge strides, the offense is a ball-control machine that converts third downs at a 50 percent clip and they have dominated three consecutive opponents.
Right now they are comfortable and confident. If they remain in that posture for all four quarters Saturday in Minneapolis, the Golden Gophers will probably win the game.
Here are a few of my keys to keep an eye on starting at Noon Saturday.
Get off to another fast start is job No. 1. Penn State has not allowed a first-quarter touchdown all season outscoring the opposition 83-3. Minnesota loves to play from in front as well and has outscored it opponents 66-20 in the first quarter. Make Minnesota uncomfortable and get out to a lead.
Force sophomore quarterback Tanner Morgan to beat you. He is capable of delivering a victory, though. I’d like to see him do it against a fast and aggressive defense. The Gophers have not seen much of that in eight games. Don’t let sixth-year running back Rodney Smith – who played in the 2016 game at Beaver Stadium – dictate the tempo.
I still think Minnesota’s defense can be had. They are improved as I said, but Penn State has already played much better units. Finding that rhythm early and often could change the scope of this game in a hurry.
And finally the key match-up for me is Penn State’s cornerbacks, starters Tariq Castro-Fields and John Reid plus all the back-ups, against Minnesota’s big receivers. What happens with the majority of those contested catches will be a benchmark for how this game unfolds.
Penn State is the better team and is battle tested. I have the Nittany Lions winning by 10 points, but I respect what Fleck has done and how the Gophers have evolved as a team. That makes them dangerous if the Nittany Lions have to chase from behind.