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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.
- Penn State Football returns home from the road, set to spend nearly the
entire month of October in Beaver Stadium. The Nittany Lions kick off a string
of three-straight home games hosting Minnesota Saturday.
Penn State (2-2, 0-1 East) enters the matchup looking to
earn its first conference win of the season, having lost its opener on the road
at No. 4/5 Michigan last week. Minnesota (3-0, 0-0 West) travels to Happy
Valley for its first Big Ten outing, after closing out a three-game homestand
with a 31-24 win against Colorado State to wrap up its non-conference schedule.
Possession of the Governor's Victory Bell is on the line as
the Nittany Lions and the Golden Gophers are set to meet for the first time
since 2013, when Minnesota took the trophy home for the first time in eight
years in Minneapolis. Penn State and Minnesota will square off at home in
Beaver Stadium for the first time 2009.
"We're excited about being back at home," Penn
State head coach James Franklin said. "I think there is a distinct
advantage obviously all over the country in being at home compared to being on
the road. We're excited about being back in Beaver Stadium in front of our fans
and friends and family, and a great opportunity to go out and play a good
football team and have an opportunity to be 1-0 this week, which is our goal
and our focus."
Keying in on improving attention to detail and consistency
all week, the Nittany Lions will look to improve upon offensive execution. Last
week, Penn State saw running back Saquon Barkley lead the way with 136 yards of
total offense, including 77 receiving yards. Averaging 120 all-purpose yards
per game, Barkley currently ranks fifth in the Big Ten in the category.
Barkley and the rest of the Nittany Lion offense will
matchup against a Minnesota defensive line that's limiting its opponents to
less than 120 yards on the ground per game, while also allowing just two
rushing touchdowns on the year.
Offensively, the Golden Gophers are averaging just under 40
points per game, having totaled 119 points in the first three games of the
season for the first time since putting up 143 points in 2005. Guided by an
experienced quarterback in Mitch Leidner, Minnesota has relied heavily on its run
game, which has accounted for 11 of 15 total touchdowns on the year.
Led by head coach Tracy Claeys, Minnesota returns 13 seniors-eligible
players on its roster, which is just one shy of Penn State's 12 senior members
on the team.
"It will be a great challenge," Franklin said. "I think both
teams are similar team in terms of youth and experience. They have returning
starters, but they're a young football. We're still a little bit younger, but
they're young as well."
Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network with
Brandon Gaudin (play-by-play) and Chuck Long (analyst) on the call.
What To Watch For -
1. Penn State's special teams unit has been a bright spot
for the Nittany Lions all season, highlighted by true freshman punter Blake
Gillikin dazzling with eight punts inside the 20-yard line and kicker Tyler
Davis at a perfect 6-for-6 in field goal attempts this year. However, Franklin
noted earlier this week that as a whole, the special teams coverage units would
need translate its fundamentals from the practice field to Beaver Stadium,
eliminating costly penalties and big plays.
"For the amount of reps that you get on special teams, we
are averaging two and a half [special teams penalties] a game - it doesn't
sound like much, but when you're only playing about 14 or 15 special teams
plays a game, that's a high amount. We have to get that number down. We have to
eliminate the big plays, too. The big punt return, the big kick return, we have
to stop those."
2. Across the board, Franklin stressed that the Nittany
Lions need to get off the field on third down, with a need for improvement on
both offense and defense. In third down offense, Penn State will need to
capitalize in third-and-short situations, while also forcing the Golden Gophers
to defend not just the run, but also the pass. Franklin also stressed
quarterback protection this week, specifically in passing situations.
"So third-and-short, being able to run the ball and mix some
of the pass in there, but being able to be physical enough to get those yards
too. Then when you're in longer yardage situations, being able to protect
consistently when the defense knows you're probably throwing and giving the
quarterback and receivers enough time to get open."
3. A topic of conversation among Franklin and offensive
coordinator Joe Moorhead this week has been identifying ways to get the ball to
Barkley, who has proven his ability to shift momentum with dynamic plays for
the Nittany Lions all year long.
"Whether it's traditional running game between the
tackles, whether it's getting him the ball on the edge or whether it's throwing
him the ball in the flats like we did last week, which got us going
offensively," Franklin said. "Just the more times we can get the ball
in his hands, the better."
1. Golden Gopher quarterback Mitch Leidner enters the
matchup with 1,264 career rushing yards and 26 career touchdowns, which is the
most in Minnesota program history for a quarterback and fifth for any player.
On the year, Leidner has rushed for 135 yards, averaging 45 yards per game with
a total of three touchdowns on the year. Minnesota is also a perfect 14-for-14
in the red zone this season, with 13 of the scores coming off of touchdowns.
2. Minnesota's running back unit has rushed 136 times for
685 yards. Rodney Smith has accounted for five of the Golden Gophers' 11
rushing scores this year, good for second in the Big Ten standings. Kobe McCray
is just behind Smith, averaging 64.3 yards per carry on the year with a pair of
rushing touchdowns. Shannon Brooks was out for the first two games of the
season, but returned against Colorado State to carry the ball 13 times for 85
yards and one touchdown.
3. Under the direction of first-year offensive line coach
Bart Miller, the Golden Gopher offensive line has allowed just one sack this
year, while also opening the way for Minnesota to total nearly 600 yards of
offense against Indiana State, including 301 passing yards and 292 yards on the
ground. However, of the 17 offensive linemen on the roster, only five have seen
any live game action prior to the 2016 season.
The Final Word -
Meeting for the 14th time in program history, the
series between Penn State and Minnesota has been one of streaks. Playing its
first game as a member of the Big Ten Conference in 1993, Penn State topped
Minnesota to open the first of four consecutive victories spanning through 1998.
The tables turned as Minnesota won the next four games between 1999 and 2004.
Penn State then claimed wins in four straight meetings from 2005-10, but the
Golden Gophers cut off the streak with a win in 2013.
Between all three of the four-game stretches, Penn State and
Minnesota have had three games decided by just a single point. Across every
all-time series, only Temple has played more one-point games against the
Nittany Lions, with Pittsburgh coming in with three games against Penn State in
program history decided by a single tally.