Penn State's road woes continue as Lions lose to Minnesota
MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson said his team identified that their offensive skill players had more speed than their counterparts in the Penn State secondary.
Golden Gophers safety Brock Vereen said the same about his defense facing the Nittany Lions' receivers and running backs.
On Saturday, Minnesota zoomed past Penn State.
Nelson had a touchdown rushing and passing as the Gophers kept the Lions winless in true road games this season with a 24-10 victory Saturday.
“We felt if we could get the ball in open space,” said Nelson, who accounted for 226 yards (186 passing, 40 rushing). “If we could get them to take a wrong step or two, we knew that we could get matchups inside. Even on the outside, we felt our receivers could have an advantage winning some routes. That's really where the weakness was in their defense.”
Penn State lost to Minnesota — a program that hasn't won a conference title in 46 years — for the first time since 2004. In part because of NCAA sanctions that have sapped the Lions' pool of athletes and because the Gophers are experiencing a renaissance under coach Jerry Kill, Minnesota had an advantage in talent for one of the few times in this series.
The Gophers (8-2, 4-2) reached eight wins for the first time since 2003 and have a four-game Big Ten winning streak during a season for the first time since 1973.
“Give Minnesota a lot of credit,” Lions coach Bill O'Brien said. “They deserve to be 8-2.”
The Lions (5-4, 2-3) have lost four consecutive road games for the first time since a nine-game skid spanning the 2003 and '04 seasons. Their most recent road victory was Nov. 3, 2012, at Purdue.
O'Brien was in no mood to discuss what those outside the program say are reasons his team has struggled.
“I don't care what a lot of people point to,” he said. “I just care about our staff and our team and my family.”
For the first time in O'Brien's two years as Lions coach, Penn State did not make players available after the game.
Zach Zwinak had 150 rushing yards and a touchdown after taking over as the Lions' featured back when Bill Belton fumbled on the first snap of the game.
After a porous first half in which it allowed 24 points and 241 yards, Penn State's defense redeemed itself in the second half. Minnesota had just six second-half first downs.
“I thought the defense came out and played well in the second half, made good adjustments at halftime and did a nice job,” said O'Brien, who doubles as the Lions' offensive coordinator. “Offensively we didn't pick up our end of the bargain in the second half, so it's disappointing.”
Neither team scored in the second half. Penn State was a yard away from pulling to within a touchdown with 6 minutes, 40 seconds to play, but Christian Hackenberg fumbled the snap on second-and-goal for the Lions' second turnover. If that didn't seal the outcome, a Gophers conversion on third-and-6 from their own 6-yard line with 5:18 left did.
On a blustery day, Hackenberg attempted six first-half passes and finished 14 for 25 for 163 yards and no touchdowns or interceptions.
Minnesota was unfazed by the conditions. The Gophers' 165 passing yards at halftime were more than they had in eight of their previous nine games. Nelson's 24-yard touchdown pass to Maxx Williams came with 17 seconds to play in the first half.
Early, Penn State's defense continued to be plagued by long drives. Although they forced a three-and-out that led to a 45-yard field goal following Belton's fumble, the Lions allowed 230 yards on 39 plays covering 17:58 over the next three Minnesota possessions. The Gophers scored touchdowns on all three.
Going back to Illinois' final possession of the first half last week, Penn State allowed opponents 41 points and 531 yards over a span of eight regulation possessions. Six of the drives lasted at least 11 plays, and the Illini and Gophers combined to go 13 for 18 on third downs in that time (plus, Minnesota converted two of its fourth downs that came after unsuccessful third downs).
Allen Robinson had a relatively quiet day with seven catches for 63 yards, and he briefly left the game with what appeared to be an injury to his left arm. But the Big Ten's leading receiver became Penn State's single-season record-holder for receiving yards, surpassing Bobby Engram's 18-year-old mark of 1,084. Robinson has 1,105 through nine games.
Zwinak followed up Belton's 201-yard performance last week with another big individual game by a Lions running back. Zwinak's 12-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter pulled Penn State to within 10-7, but Nelson's 6-yard scoring run capped a 13-play, 70-yard drive on the ensuing possession to preserve a comfortable cushion.
“I think it was a game with very similar teams in similar situations right now,” said Kill, who watched from the coaches' box because he is on leave to focus on treating and managing his epilepsy. “We made a few more plays than they did.”