The “rule of fours” might be broken on Saturday when the Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2 B1G) travel to the frozen north to take on streaking Minnesota (7-2, 3-2 B1G) in the Gopher Hole in Minneapolis. The famous “rule of fours” is complete, made-up, superstitious bullshit based on the coincidence that during this short-lived rivalry, each team has won four straight games before yielding to the other team for four straight losses. First Penn State won four, then Minnesota won four, and most recently, Penn State won four. The two teams last competed with each other in 2010. What does this tell you about Saturday? Nothing!
As you might have gleaned from the above diatomaceous diatribe, Penn State leads the all-time series 8-4. Notably, however, a significant loss to Minnesota signaled the beginning of The Dark Years (cue cello), and an unexpected PSU win over Minnesota likewise signaled the end of those doldrums (cue the Debussyesque strings and woodwinds).
Could a “rule of fours” loss here portend the start of Dark Years II (solitary, mournful cello)? (I’m amusing myself here — this “rule of fours” stuff is whack.)
One other four-related thing: Minnesota has not won four straight Big Ten games since 1973. How’s that for an incentive? They’ll be loaded for bear (ok, Lion) on their home turf, and that’s no bull! (Cue Bizet’s March of the Toreadors from Carmen).
Musical accompaniment aside, Minnesota is on a roll, having won its past three Big Ten games after dropping two to Iowa and Michigan. Convincing wins over Northwestern and Nebraska, along with a fortuitous shoot-out win over Indiana put them on an emotional high coming into this game. Meanwhile, Penn State struggled to defeat lowly Illinois with an overtime comeback win that bolstered their “we can” confidence, which had been shaken by the prior blowout loss to Ohio State, who should be thrown out of the Big Ten for being too good.
Minny hoo hoo is a running team. See Gophers run. Run run run. Like Harold Stassen. They rank 19th overall in rushing yards, piling up 221 yards per game. Halfbacks aside (when’s the last time someone referred to a halfback?), their two quarterbacks, sophomore Philip Nelson and freshman Mitch Leidner have conspired to produce over 700 yards on the ground this season. Their running back, feature back, scatback, tailback, (i.e., halfback), junior speedster David Cobb, has run for 803 yards on 148 carries this season, for an average of 5.4 ypc. The PSU front seven will need to be on top of their game to deal with the running Gophers. They can be stopped, as indeed Iowa showed us in their 23-7 victory over the Golden Ones in the battle for Paul Bunyan’s corn-fed pig. The Hawkeyes held this vaunted running offense to 30 yards rushing (fanfare) and 165 yards total, I might add.
So, load up on the run, you say, à la Michigan? Not so fast! Although Minnesoooda is not a passing team by nature, Nelson can throw the ball, and so can Leidner. Nelson has thrown 114 times, completing 64, for 942 yards, 8 TDs, and 4 INTS, while Leidner is 29-49 for 366 with 1 TD and 1 INT. So, unlike Harold Stassen, who never passed (a chance to run for office), the Gophers have gone to the aerial attack about 18 times per game on the average. Can they make the pass a reasonable threat if Penn State sells out on the run? We’ll see!
Philip Nelson has had a troublesome hamstring injury that caused him to yield time to Leidner while it healed. Since regaining the starting job, the Gophers have become better passers. In the last three games, they’ve averaged 202 yards through the air. “A lot of teams do a good job of stuffing the run in the Big Ten,” said Nelson. “So I think our balanced offense is helping us to continue to help us grow as an offense.”
Balanced? Wellllll, in a manner of speaking, they’re getting there. Other teams have beaten Penn State this year by spreading the field. A balanced attack and a dual-threat quarterback spell troubles for the overworked, understaffed Nittany Lion defense.
So, Minnesota will try to control the ball and wear out the thin, semi-competent PSU defense, while Penn State runs Bill Belton at them in return. Belton is coming off his amazing 200+ yard effort against Illinois, the first 200 yard performance by a PSU running back since Larry Johnson, Jr. provided a small glimmer of light during the Dark Years (cello). Minnesota’s rush defense is more competent than Illinois and Indiana, but still ranked sixth in the B1G. So, there should be some opportunities. The Penn State passing game has a good chance to succeed against a pass defense ranked ninth in the Big Ten. We here at the Turkey hope that the conference’s leading passer, Christian Hackenberg, can spread the ball around a bit more than he has been doing. Surely, Minny will try to put the clamps on our future NFL Hall of Famer, Allen Robinson.
If it comes down to special teams, and this might be one of those close ones that does, Penn State is in deep gopher poo. They got lucky last week when the V’Angeroo didn’t show up for duty; they’re liable to be less lucky this week. Junior Gopher Marcus Jones is a competent kick and punt returner. Against a sloppy coverage unit, this could spell trouble. The Minnesota kicking game is solid, with senior place-kicker Chris Hawthorne having gone 11-14 on the year. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Sam Ficken’s kickin’ has been lackin’, and I don’t even want to mention Alex Butterworth’s punting again. Jesse Della Valle is an a-ight returner, but he is hampered by a less than cohesive return unit.
This figures to be a game of give and take, of love and lust, of crime and passion, of cellos and flutes. I expect some sloppiness on both sides. If Penn State can curb its turnoveritis and can continue its third down conversion improvements, there’s hope.
Distinguished Alumnus of the Week: Harold Stassen
Those of you who are over 40 might actually remember former Minnesota governor and University of Minnesota alumnus Harold Stassen, who died in 2001 at the ripe old age of 93. Although Stassen held many important jobs in the military, political, and academic arenas, he was best remembered for his penchant for running for the Republican presidential nomination. Stassen was a liberal politician, back when the GOP actually had a liberal wing.
Stassen ran for the presidential nomination 12 times between 1944 and 2000. He also ran for Governor of Minnesota four times (winning three), Governor of Pennsylvania twice, U.S. Senate twice, Mayor of Philadelphia once, and U.S. Representative once.
Jobs Stassen actually held included serving on the staff of Admiral William F. “Bull” Halsey in the Pacific Theater in World War II after having served as Governor of Minnesota from 1939-1943. After the war, Stassen became President of the University of Pennsylvania until he was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to the post of Director of the United States Foreign Operations Administration. At the University of Pennsylvania, he tried to increase the popularity of the Quakers’ football team, which was met with disfavor. (How many people outside of Pennsylvania confuse Penn State and University of Pennsylvania?) How did Stassen get to Pennsylvania? No one knows?
When Stassen died at the age of 93 in Bloomington, Minnesota, he was the oldest living former governor of a U.S. state.
Run wild, run free, run the weather.
It’ll be a balmy, springlike day in Minneapolis (cue Spring Song by Mendelsohn), with a high of 45°F and a low of 27°F. The AccuWeather RealFeel® will be 35° because the wind will be blowing around the fractured clouds on a partly cloudy day. Winds from the west at a steady 15 mph with gusts to 27 might require some adjustments by passers and kickers. The field might be a little on the damp side as some rain mixed with snow is expected Friday afternoon and evening.
I haven’t really said anything here, so why start now?
Yeah, it’s time for the Official Turkey Poop Prognostication, that for which you’ve waded through all the bullshit above (or not). (Rimshot.) The Turkey here has been doing about as well with his predictions of late as a snowball has been doing in Mauna Loa. (Cymbal crash.) Thus far this season, they’ve been making turkeyburgers out of this foul old fowl — I’m now 6-2 straight up, 4-4 against the spread, and 5-3 on the over/under. Goes to show you not to rely on me for your gambling advice. (Double kick bass kick.)
The current line on this game favors the Stassenesque Gophers by 2.5 points, with an over/under of 47.5, suggesting a home team win like around 25-22 or thereabouts. Very little money is being wagered on this game. The interest level is about on par with my interest in hearing Obama defend his broken ACA for the umpteenth time. At the beginning of the year, I looked at this as a pretty sure road win. Now, I’m confused. I can see it going either way. Both teams relied on last-minute heroics last week and it might come down to that again. Noon starts on the road, I don’t like, but I’m going to have to give PSU the benefit of the doubt on this one. Penn State 26, Minnesota 25. Take Minny and the points, and take the over.
I’ll be back after the game with a recap of what I saw and you’ll tell me what I dittn’t.