Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-0, 0-0 Big Ten) face Penn State (2-2, 0-1)
Minnesota is coming off a big 31-24 win over Colorado State (2-2), while Penn State is still reeling from a 49-10 loss to #4 Michigan (4-0). This game is the conference opener for the Golden Gophers, who will be playing at St. Joe Memorial Stadium at Beaver for the seventh time. Penn State leads the series 8-5, including a 4-2 record at home.
This is a 3:30 kickoff, which offers some protection against “that dullard look,” but because that particular demeanor was prevalent against Michigan last week, also a 3:30 start, no one knows whether the Nittany Lions will come out flat or determined and poised for action. I don’t think they’ll be as intimidated by these tiny rodents this week as they were by the vicious weasels last week.
Minnesota is best remembered and will always be reviled for its 24-23 win over then #2 Penn State in 1999, which heralded the onset of The Dark Years (cue cello).
The Golden Gophers’ team colors are maroon and gold, but it always looks brown to me, like that damn jug for which they play Michigan every year. The Little Brown Jug is neither little nor brown. Talk amongst yourselves. Discuss!
I counted on this one as a win at the beginning of the season, but in the words of Kenny Loggins, now I’m not so sure.
This is it! The waiting is over.
The sad truth is that every game is crucial from here on. Yeah, Penn State has lost only twice, but it is clear that both offense and defense are deficient enough that even teams we counted as wins at the season’s outset are anything but a sure thing now.
I know, I know. In the words of the late, lamented St. Joe, you’re never as good as you think you are when you win, and you’re never as bad as you think you are when you lose. That’s supposed to be consolation. Quoting Big Al, not only do the Nittany Lions look bad; they are bad — and injuries in critical spots make them even worse.
A Team in Disarray — We Are!
The defense is porous against the run, as performances against Pitt and Michigan can attest. You have to wade through three pages of statistics to find Penn State’s rank: 104th in rushing defense, having given up 855 yards, 12 touchdowns, and an average of 4.91 yards per carry. Having three healthy starting linebackers would help, as would having last year’s defensive line, but wishful thinking ain’t going to get it. A disproportionate share of tackles is now being made by the secondary and no end to that pattern appears on the horizon.
When the Lions’ opponents reach the red zone, scoring is almost automatic. Penn State ranks 111th in red zone defense. Opponents score 95% of the time.
The Penn State offense flat-out sucks. While we have some pretty good pass receivers, they don’t know how to get open. Our offensive line — I won’t even call them The Five Traffic Cones anymore, because traffic cones don’t have a reverse gear — bites the big one. Michigan exposed all the flaws in the Nittany Lions’ running and passing game. All-purpose go-to guy Saquon Barkley cannot do it all without a little help from his friends. Again, one has to wade through three pages of stats to note that Penn State is 122nd in rushing offense, 66th in passing offense, and 112th in total offense. Only Marshall is worse in third down conversions, where the Nittany Lions rank 127th, representing a measly 24.4%. How long has this third down crap been going on? Too damn long!
In the Big Ten, Penn State ranks dead last in five statistical categories and first in only one, which is field goals made. We’re second in punting, which tells you exactly what you’ve seen on the field. PSU has solved half of its special teams problems, but return and coverage issues still exist. Otherwise, they’re mediocre or just plain bad.
So, can this team beat anyone, given its sieve of a defense and its hemolytic offense? Yeah, Kent State, and on a good day, Temple. The rest remain to be seen. All bets are off.
We knew at season’s outset that PSU would have to outscore its opponents because its own defense would allow lots of points. We ass-umed that the high-powered Joe Moorhead offense with its great receivers could do that. Four games into the season, I have my doubts. It was a traumatic enough realization for many Sanguinarians that Penn State’s defense was no longer the vaunted brick wall upon which our pride and reputation have been based for much of the past five decades, but to exacerbate it with an inept offense is too much to take. And for how many years now has that offense been inept?
Fire Franklin? We editorialize.
Could better coaching solve Penn State’s problems? Is the talent gap, which was significantly worsened by the NCAA sanctions, an insurmountable obstacle for at least the next few years in spite of coaching perturbations? James Franklin is not Penn State football’s biggest problem. The “Fire Franklin” groundswell is growing, but isn’t the head coach always the scapegoat for deeper problems in the program? Just ask Les Miles. He never had a fewer than eight win season at LSU, but when he lost to Auburn in a quirky game, that was it for Les. I’m no Franklin fan — in fact, his coaching style annoys me — but this team’s problems transcend the head coach’s efficacy. Idealistic fans are typically in “the grass is greener” mode, but the unknown is by definition never a sure thing. Still, the crazy fans prefer the unknown to the status quo. That’s like thinking voting in new politicians every two or four years will make a difference — change for the sake of change. They think that a savior will ride in on a white horse and save the program, but based on past hiring decisions, Penn State is more likely to hire a Brady Hoke than a Jim Harbaugh; a John Cooper than an Urban Meyer.
Penn State fans are crazy just like any other school homeys. They all think they should be athletic director in charge of hiring the head coach. Perhaps they discount the abilities of Sandy Barbour, allegedly a woman, but it typically doesn’t matter which of the current range of genders and alternatives thereto occupies the AD office — idealistic fans always know best. If Franco Harris was to offer himself up as a head coach candidate, the fans would stand adamantly in favor of hiring him, regardless of his lack of coaching credentials. And, oh boy, Penn Stater Mike Munchak, a former NFL head coach, is a position coach for the Steelers, so let’s go hire him! He’s right over there, 150 miles away! And wow, look at what Penn Stater and State College native Matt Rhule has done for Temple! We should run out and hire him without even interviewing anyone else for the head coaching job. (Seriously, I’ve seen that crap written by a crazy fan.) The grass is always greener. The pragmatist in me will not allow me to go down that perilous path.
Franklin is what, 0-6 against ranked opponents? Something like that. Just as putridly, his conference record is 6-11. How much of that is his fault and how much of it relates to the players’ inherent talent? Again, homey fans don’t ever tend to blame players — they’re always the greatest in the world — so the coach winds up being the scapegoat for all the team’s ills. Franklin is culpable to some extent, but in reality, how much?
I’m not defending JF so much as I am doing a little devil’s advocacy. I’ll probably be among the first to rejoice when he gets the ax.
Where We At.
What will it take to turn the program around? Crazy fans think that’s a simple proposition. I don’t.
Penn State fans do not relish being just one of the also-rans in the Big Ten, but that’s where we are. Acceptance is a painful process through all the false promises and time. We’re just used to being superior in at least a preponderance of aspects, but we’re coasting on a reputation that truly hasn’t been upheld for the past 20 years. Glorious distant memories die hard. We have a good year every now and then, occasionally rising above the mediocre station to which we’ve been relegated. It’s sad when we have to look for small consolation like the Joey “Big Toe” Julius’ circus act. That’s where we are. If we can’t play hard with the big boys, at least we can have fun with the playground kids. Set your sights low and you’ll avoid disappointment.
So, that brings us to the Minnesota Golden Gophers, another perennial also-ran.
Run Gophers, Run!
Minnesota is a running team, which spells trouble for the depleted defense of the Nittany Lions, already at the bottom of the heap of B10 rushing defenses. The Gophers rank fifth in the conference in rushing offense, while Penn State ranks last in rushing defense. Three running backs get reps for Minnesota. Rodney Smith, a 5-11, 205 lb sophomore, had 17 carries for 99 yards and two touchdowns against the 60th-ranked rushing defense of Colorado State. His partner in crime, sophomore Shannon Brooks (6-0, 210), just returning from bench time due to a broken foot, was 13 for 85 and a touchdown. The third member of the trio, junior Kobe McCrary (6-1, 235), who had filled in for Brooks during his injured absence and had 176 yards against Indiana State, was 4-13 in the Colorado State game. Fresh legs will keep the Nittany Lion defense chasing guys all day.
Now throw in a quarterback who is capable of breaking a long run himself, and you have some serious issues for the 104th ranked, injury depleted rushing defense of Penn State. They’ll be worn out midway through the third quarter. Minnesota senior QB Mitch Leidner is a 6-4, 230 lb dual threat. He has thrown 76 passes and completed 49 for a 64.5% completion percentage this season. Against Colorado State he completed 80% of the 20 passes he threw, adding 10 carries for 40 rushing yards and a touchdown.
The Best Defense is a Good Offense?
So, the Nittany Lions are back in that position we forecast at season’s outset: they’ll have to outscore the Gopheroos. Minnesota boasts the 34th ranked rushing defense and the 36th ranked overall defense. So, it ain’t going to be easy. However, they did allow 23 points against Oregon State, 28 points against Indiana State, and 24 points against Colorado State. So, surely Penn State can score a few touchdowns, right?
I repeat: It ain’t gonna be easy. Get that through your superior-ass Penn State thought patterns! This game could go either way, and Penn State will have to be mistake-free to win. Alas, Minnesota takes care of the ball, with a +1.25 turnover average, while our own fumble-prone Nittany Lions are second-to-last in the conference in turnover margin, with a -1 average per game. Only Purdue is worse in the Big Ten.
The good news is that Minnesota sucks even worse than Penn State at red zone defense. Through three games its opponents are 9-9 inside the 20. (Penn State’s opponents are 18-19 through four.)
The game is pretty even, which is why the current spread of Penn State -3 over the Golden Gophers is typically of home turf advantage. Put this game on a neutral field and it is a toss-up. The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind.
Which brings us to…
Distinguished Alumnus of the Week – Robert Allen Zimmerman
Robert Allen Zimmerman, better known as Bob Dylan, attended the University of Minnesota for a year before dropping out in 1960 to pursue his musical career. He went to New York to visit his idol, folk singer Woody Guthrie, who was dying of Huntington’s Disease. That visit with Guthrie had a profound influence on Dylan’s musical future.
Although he could never sing worth a shit, his messages were strong and the stoners of the 60s and 70s loved his ass for it. He became one of the standout voices of his generation. The rough edge of his voice was overlooked in view of the poignancy of his message. Joyce Carol Oates wrote: “When we first heard this raw, very young, and seemingly untrained voice, frankly nasal, as if sandpaper could sing, the effect was dramatic and electrifying.” Most of his songs sounded better when covered by others, but he was regarded as a symbol more than a crooner.
Dylan continues to work. The ex-Gopher toured Japan in early 2016 and did a U.S. tour in summer of this year. He will be performing at Mega-Fest in California a week from Friday along with other old farts, namely, the Rolling Stones, Neil Young, Paul McCartney, the Who, and Roger Waters.
In May 2012, Dylan received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Barack Obama.
The 75 year-old Dylan now resides in Malibu, California.
We’re getting into some early fall patterns at St. Joe Memorial Stadium. At this moment, it looks like Saturday’s high will be in the low 60s on a cloudy day with showers, some heavy. That would seem to favor the team who takes care of the ball over the team that loses it.
Da Bottom Line
Penn State opened as five point favorites at home over the Golden Gophers. Betting quickly drove the spread down to three. Again, we ain’t getting any respect from the gamblers, but they’ve been pretty correct thus far. The over/under is 56, reflecting what a strong defensive battle this game will be (not!), and suggesting a PSU win by an approximate score of 30-26.
Let’s cut to the chase. The Gophers will have seen enough from the Michigan game videos that their defense will understand how to make PSU one-dimensional, but they ain’t Michigan and I don’t think they can do it. I’ll take Minnesota and the points, and I’m going to take the over. Penn State 29, Minnesota 28.
I’ll be back after the game with what I hope will be a happy recap!