By: Thomas Frank Carr
There are no easy games on the schedule. It’s something every head coach of every team will eventually find themselves saying. Normally a statement like that is easily dismissed as coach-speak because there are always easy games on the schedule. But it seems this year, the Penn State Nittany Lions don’t have any easy games- or at least not as many as usual. After a needlessly close yet dramatic overtime victory against Illinois last week, Penn State faces another tough challenge. This time they head up to Minnesota to play the Golden Gophers, a team that is exceeding their usual expectations and sit at 7-2 on the season. Nittany Lion’s Head Coach Bill O’Brien knows that it is going to be a classic Big 10 matchup.
“They run the ball very well. They run a power scheme. They run the ball about 75% of the time, and that’s what they do. They’re very well coached. This is a very good team. It’s one of the better teams we’ve played this year. When I watch them, there aren’t any easy plays on either side of the ball.”
Minnesota is 4th in the Big 10 in rushing with 221 yards per game. Third stringer and now starting tailback David Cobb leads the team with 803 yards and six touchdowns. Minnesota will present a tough challenge for a Penn State defense that matching up with physical teams that like to run the ball. Penn State is giving up 150 yards rushing a game- almost unheard of for a Penn State defense.
A win on Saturday would lift Minnesota to 8-2 but it would also be the firs time since 1973 that they had won four consecutive conference games. For Penn State it’s a chance to show that they can dominate a game against a traditionally weaker opponent. Penn State has struggled to close out games, or make the key play in regulation to separate themselves from teams. Against a tough, physical team, it may be up to Bill Belton again this week to carry the Penn State offense to victory. His 201 yards last week against Illinios were a personal best. Yards will certainly be tougher to come by this week. In particular Penn State should always be aware of No. 99 Ra’Shede Hageman,
“He’s an excellent player. One of the better defensive lineman we’ve gone against. He’s explosive…plays with good pad level. He’s quick. Seems to me that he’s going to have a chance to be a first or second day draft pick.”
O’Brien plans on showing Hageman the ultimate sign of respect- the double team,
“You have different ways of to deal with him. You’re going to have to double hi. You’re going to have to get help from places where you don’t normally get help from and make sure that you know where he is on every play and try your best not to have him single blocked all the time, because he is a challenge.”
Despite their stout, physical play on both sides of the ball, Minnesota lacks any real dynamism on offense. Quarterback Phillip Nelson is more of a runner than a passer and as O’Brien said, they don’t like to throw the ball very much. If Penn State can get in a rhythm early and get Allen Robinson involved in the game they have a much better chance of winning. The game will come down to whether or not Penn State can protect the football and get an early lead. If Minnesota is forced to play catch-up their offense is much less effective. It should be a hard fought battle at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday and one thing is for sure, running plays won’t be in short supply.