MINNEAPOLIS, MN, Oct. 7 — The Penn State Nittany Lions (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) escaped with an overtime win by the slimmest of possible margins over the Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-4, 0-3 Big Ten). The final score was 28–27, and in this case it really was that close. The Lions were able to capitalize on gifts of a missed extra point and a questionable pass interference call after Minnesota had easily scored a touchdown in the overtime period.
It appeared as if Minnesota had the win when in its overtime series, Penn State could not move the ball, leading to a 4th and 9 at the 24 yard-line. Morelli threw a desperation pass to Deon Butler, which looked like it was cleanly broken up by Trumaine Banks, but Banks was called for pass interference. Looking at the replay, I couldn’t see how Banks could be flagged. And so, Gift #2 for Penn State, this one at the behest of the officials, led to a first down at the 12. The Lions got the touchdown and Kelly kicked the extra point for the winning margin. And we got out of this one by the skin of our teeth.
The game went pretty much as this Turkey had expected, albeit with some inexplicable coaching decisions on the Penn State side and with more screwups that I would have hoped for at this stage of the season.
Tony Hunt had his usual day—31 carries for 144 yards and two touchdowns—but he could have had a lot more if the play selection had gone as I thought it would. Hunt was used sparingly in the first half. Against one of the worst rushing defenses in Division I-A, it might have been possible to have taken command of the game in the first half had more plays been called for Hunt.
As it went, however, it seemed as if our offensive brain trust wanted to give Morelli some game experience or something. Through combination of errant passes, receivers dropping balls, and balls deliberately thrown away, Morelli repeatedly faced third-and-long situations in the first half. And with the Lions’ abysmal third-down success rate—3 for 13—it we saw a lot of three-and-outs. When you have a weapon like Hunt, you shouldn’t be looking at third-and-long all say.
So, the first half was definitely frustrating.
Morelli wound up 20–24 for 281 yards and two touchdowns, the first touchdown passes he’s thrown since the season opener with Akron. This time, for a change, Morelli started to spread the ball around among Butler, Norwood, and Williams, who had a particularly good day with four receptions for 94 yards. Williams also had three rushes for 22 yards.
The Lions’ first drive fizzled into a three-and-out, but Minnesota, in the capable hands of Bryan Cupito, got the ball back at midfield, driving 52 yards on six plays for a touchdown. The two teams then traded punts. Penn State was unable to capitalize on its next possession and had to punt again. This time, however, Dominic Jones fielded the Jeremy Kapinos punt at the ten yard line, was driven back a yard, and fumbled the ball away. First-and-goal, Penn State, at the nine. Two plays later, Hunt was in the end zone. Kelly kicked the extra point and it was 7–7.
At the beginning of the second quarter, the Lions were driving deep into Minnesota territory, leading to a fourth-and-inches on the Gophers’ 10. The coaches decided to go for it, but Morelli couldn’t power it over the line on a quarterback sneak behind a nonexistent offensive line surge. The teams then traded punts, and then Cupito took his team 76 yards to the Penn State 14, where it was decided that he would go for it. Like Morelli before him, he too failed.
Penn State got the ball back and drove it 71 yards to the Minnesota 12. On fourth-and-nine, Kevin Kelly trotted out to kick the chip-shot field goal. However, Kevin Suhey muffed the hold, picked up the ball, and threw a Garo Yepremianlike pass that was intercepted by John Shevlin at the 12.
At that point, the Turkey was feeling the frustration that we’ve felt all season long. The inability to capitalize in the red zone, to make the big play when it’s needed—to NOT FINISH—is hurting us big time. It is annoying as hell!
Fortunately, my disgust was short-lived, for after a three-and-out by Minnesota, Penn State got the ball back on the Minnesota 40 with 59 seconds left in the half. Morelli was suddenly sharp, completing a 25-yarder to Jordan Norwood, followed by a 15 yard strike to Tony Hunt for the TD. Thus, the half ended with the Lions up 14–7.
There was no scoring in the third quarter, although we had a field goal chance with 90 seconds left in the period. Alas, it was deja vu all over again with Kevin Kelly, as he missed to the right from 42 yards.
Minnesota led off the fourth quarter with a 75 yard drive for a score, tying the game. The Nittany Lions responded with a punishing, 82-yard drive in which Tony Hunt was finally used to great advantage against a worn-down defense. With the defense expecting Hunt to run it up the gut, Morelli unexpectedly threw a touchdown pass to Matt Hahn. This is something I had been hoping the coaches would call all season instead of predictably running Hunt up the middle. I guess their intransigence made the play fake all the more believable.
Immediately after this play, the TV coverage showed some sideline action—Levi Brown telling an apparently disgruntled BranDon Snow to chill out. It was rather intense, with Brown giving Snow a big shove at one point. The commentators, the lovely Pam Ward and the dapper Mike Gottfried, offered little explanation, other than that Snow had gotten on an assistant coach’s case after Matt Hahn was substituted for him. I suppose he thought that he should have been the one to catch the touchdown pass. This one probably won’t be swept under the rug—details will emerge during the next couple of days as to which coach was involved, why Snow was on his case, and what Snow’s future will be with the team.
The two teams once again traded punts and with 2:23 left in the game and Penn State leading 21–14, Bryan Cupito drove his team 85 yards from the Penn State 15 for the tying score. I thought that our coaches would go for the win, playing as they were on the road, with 41 seconds left in regulation, but after a feeble incompletion, we let the clock run out.
The Nittany Lions won the toss and elected to start the overtime period on defense. Things quickly started looking glum when after two incomplete passes, Cupito hit Eric Decker for a 25-yard touchdown. However, Jason Giannini missed the extra point!
The Turkey felt that Minnesota had left the door open, if only a crack. If we could only manage to get the touchdown, we’d have the opportunity to win the game. Thoughts of the Orange Bowl went running through my mind, but was I putting the cart before the horse? We still had to get into the end zone from the Minnesota 25, and given our putrid red-zone performance, it wasn’t looking good.
Well, I’ve already told the story from there. First the gift of the missed extra point, then the gift of what I still feel to be a blown pass interference call (biased I might be, but I’ve still got to call them as I see them)—did we really win this one or did we have it handed to us? I’ll take it, either way. Final score, Penn State 28, Minnesota 27.
OK, readers, please put this game into perspective. A win on the road is good, very good. A win a week before the big Michigan game is a wonderful confidence builder. However, recognize that Minnesota’s defense is ranked #99 in Division I-A and yet we had our usual problems making plays in the red-zone. We’re still screwing up basic things that high school kids can do well, such as catching long snaps and holding them for the kicker. Furthermore, while our offensive line is indeed improving, even without its leader, Levi Brown, who is sitting out with an injury, they still couldn’t get enough of a surge against that mediocre Gopher defense to spring Morelli on fourth-and-inches.
We needed two gifts to win this game, which we know we’re not going to get with Michigan. And neither will we be looking at the Minnesota defense; instead of #99, we’ll be looking at the #1 rushing defense in the country, and the #8 overall defense. More on Michigan later in the week. For now, this Turkey is just happy that we escaped with a victory in Minneapolis! Go Lions—practice HARD!