The #14 Penn State Nittany Lions (5-1, 1-1 Big Ten) host the unranked Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) on Saturday at Beaver Stadium in a game telecast regionally on ABC, with appropriate out-of-market mirrorage by ESPN. In the round, red eyes of this Turkey, this will be the first significant test of the year for many aspects of the PSU game.
The situation is that of a classic trap game. Penn State is coming off an easy blowout win against an overmatched FCS opponent, and possibly looking past Minnesota toward Michigan in the Big House a week from Saturday. Furthermore, the Lions are favored by 17 points as I write this. Minnesota is using that 17-point spread to fire up the already upset-minded troops even further. I am getting queasy thinking of the potential for another loss, particularly a second one on our home field, but it could happen.
Whichever way it goes, I doubt that it will be a blowout. The weather is liable to be marginal, which favors the team with the better running game. Thus far, after a shaky start, that has been Penn State.
Last time the two met, back in 2006, the Lions won by the slimmest of margins, 28-27 at the old Metrodome. The Lions have never faced Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster.
The Governor’s Victory Bell?
Nobody seems to be mentioning that this game is supposed to be a rivalry game for the Governor’s Victory Bell. With such a lack of publicity, and with the teams waiting three years to see each other, I have to wonder what kind of a rivalry the marketing geniuses were trying to promote. Here, for your reference is a picture of the Governor’s Victory Bell trophy. Whether we’ll see it at the game is anyone’s guess.
What’s Dis Decker?
Decker, Decker, Decker… that is all we’re hearing these days. Triple Decker Club Sandwiches, Double Decker London Buses, Black & Decker Chinese power tools… Oh, and Eric Decker of the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Eric Decker leads the Big Ten in two categories: receptions per game and average receiving yards, at 7.67 and 114.83, respectively. Decker, a 22 year-old senior from Cold Spring, Minnesota, is known for his mental toughness and athletic ability, and is the cornerstone of the Gopher offense. Hell, he even can throw a pass himself, and he occasionally is called upon to do so.
Some would think that Decker is the only player on the team, as evidenced by the following question and answer taken from Nittany Lions head coach Joe Paterno’s Tuesday press conference. Joe got cranked up because a reporter asked him how the Lions planned to defend against Decker.
Questioner: On the Timmons thing, what would your plans be to cover Decker? Will you try to rotate cornerbacks?
Paterno: Why in God’s name would I answer that in any way? You sound like a Minnesota assistant coach. What are you going to do with Decker? You know, I don’t know. We may put four corners on him, all right, let everybody else run for touchdowns. I don’t know what we’re going to do yet. We got to look at some things. It’s Tuesday. We’ve had one practice. We had a long discussion this morning as to some of the things they do.
Minnesota gives you a lot of problems. You never see the same offense two weeks in a row with Minnesota. They’re very, very innovative. They’ve got smart kids that can handle different formations, different pass routes each week. They have that experienced quarterback who is able to keep everything together.
So I don’t know what to expect. We’ve got to play our game. We can’t guess. There’s no question Decker is a guy that’s a very big concern of ours. But they’ll jam that ball down your throat if you’re not careful. They can run the football. This is a good football team. This is a good football team.
Note the final couple of sentences: “This is a good football team. This is a good football team.” That is what Joe called Eastern Illinois, Illinois, Temple, Syracuse, and Akron (just once). Therefore, there is great hope here for a victory. But I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep. And miles to go before I sleep.
If you want to look at common opponents, we have had one this year thus far: Syracuse. Minnesota beat the Orange 23-20 in the season opener in overtime while Penn State, playing their most complete game of the year thus far, won their battle with the Orangemen, 28-7. If you recall, this was the game in which the Nittany Lions finally found their running game.
Minnesota has had the tougher schedule thus far, losing only to then #8 Cal (35-21) and Wisconsin (31-28). This is a difficult stretch for the Gophers, as they’ll also be facing #7 Ohio State on the road next week.
Exploring the Unknown
Because of the Lions’ cupcake dominated schedule, it is impossible to determine where the team really is now. This game should give us a better indication than we have had thus far as to Penn State’s efficacy on the field. We think they have a good pass rush and we think they have a good defense against the run, but we do not know. We think we might have a cohesive offensive line – do not include me in that camp – but we do not know. We have no idea whatsoever whether the defensive secondary can defend the deep pass threat. However, we do know one thing for damn sure: our kickoff and punt coverage and return units suck badly.
In fact, we do not know whether Daryll Clark can play in a pressure game. He folded against Iowa when the going got rough. He pouted for the second half of that game and for the first half of the Illinois game. If the offensive line is unable to protect him, will he be able to surmount the adversity? We do not know.
Why we are still exploring the unknown halfway through the season is a function of a rough start with several unsettled positions on the offensive line, injuries on defense, and the uncertainty of playing an early schedule peppered with slackers. The Nittany Lions are looking better, but are they good enough to win Big Ten games against the better teams? The next four games – the veritable “meat” of the schedule – will tell the tale one way or the other.
One area in which the Lions should find success is with the pass rush. Minnesota has allowed 2.5 sacks per game. They allowed five last week against Purdue. The Lions’ front seven must be licking their chops in anticipation. If they can be effective in rushing the passer, the threat of Decker beating the secondary deep can be minimized.
Minnesota has three good linebackers, led by MLB Lee Campbell with 10.6 tackles per game and Nate Triplett with 10.2 tpg.
Potential Stumbling Blocks
Special teams had better improve damn fast. Minnesota ranks 7th nationally in punt returns and 12th in kickoff returns. Penn State ranks 99th and 119th in these statistical categories. The suckage is obvious and this will hurt the Nittany Lions.
Turnovers are another Achilles heel: Penn State ranks 76th with a net give-up of .33 per game while the Golden Gophers rank 61st and are dead even between give-ups and take-aways.
I suspect that Minnesota will try to beat the Nittany Lions with the pass, because they respect the PSU rushing defense. Nevertheless, they are not stupid. They know about the Penn State schedule, too, and they will have to test the rushing defense just to see if it is as good as it appears on paper. It will be interesting to see how the PSU defensive interior handle 375 lb juco transfer Jeff Wills.
You have to respect a team that can keep a game tied with a decent PAC-10 team until the fourth quarter. In that game against Cal, junior quarterback Adam Weber went 21-32 for 226 yards and two touchdowns, but three interceptions gave Cal the edge.
All-Time Name Winner?
In doing my apostrophe search through the Minnesota roster, I found a potential candidate for the best apostrophiated name ever in college football. Senior fullback Logan U’u is a serious front-runner, at least in the name derby.
The forecast is for a high of 38, with a chance for rain mixed with snow. This is ya-better-hang-onto-da-ball weather. For the fans, it is bundle up time. And remember, no glass bottles of human antifreeze at the tailgates this year.
Turkey Poop Prediction
You’ve read this far, so you deserve more of the same. That’s what you’ll get. Remember our credo: A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Because of the uncertainty of this week, the Official Turkey Poop Prediction, which was uncannily accurate last week, is in a bad way this week, signifying nothing. As I’ve mentioned above, the gamblers have established Penn State as a 17-point favorite, with an over/under of 50. This suggests a potential final score of 33-17, or thereabouts. When in doubt, I’ll go with the home team, especially, if the home team is the Nittany Lions. When in doubt, I’ll also throw the spread out the window, given Penn State’s penchant for not covering it. I’m not hopping off the Lions’ train just yet. Penn State 27, Minnesota 17.