No. 13 Minnesota presents sizable challenge to No. 5 Penn State
UNIVERSITY PARK — The battle of the Big Ten unbeatens is getting closer.
And fifth-ranked Penn State (8-0) still has a few days to sharpen its game plan for the 13th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-0).
But James Franklin knows what kind of challenge awaits his Nittany Lions in Minneapolis. PSU’s sixth-year coach had this to say about P.J. Fleck’s team Tuesday:
“They just keep getting better. They know how to win. They play probably a style of football that you don’t see much anymore.”
What did Franklin mean by that comment?
Minnesota’s ball-control approach has gotten the attention of the PSU coaching staff. The Gophers average 34 minutes, 43 seconds of possession time, and they are tremendous at converting third-down chances. Minnesota is clicking at 50 percent (49 of 98).
“(Fleck) wants to dominate time of possession with their offensive line,” Franklin said. “Literally, if they get up by a lead early in the game, they are going to start milking the clock already. They are going to try to suffocate you with their offensive line, with their style of offense and with time of possession.”
The Gophers offensive line and wideout units have been the team’s strengths. Minnesota is bigger than most Big Ten teams up front, and the eye-catcher is sophomore right tackle Daniel Faalele, who is listed at 6-9, 400 pounds.
Minnesota also boasts a pair of big, talented wideouts in senior Tyler Johnson (6-2, 205) and sophomore Rashod Bateman (6-2, 210).
“You look at them offensively, it’s probably the best offensive line that we have played,” Franklin said. “They are massive, I mean, massive. The right tackle is 6-9, 400 pounds and not skinny, if that’s — if that’s — excuse me and not heavy, if that’s even possible to say. The guy next to him I think is 6-5, 350. They have the biggest offensive line I think in the country, college, including the NFL.
“Best wide receiver group we have played. They are going to play a mix of 10 personnel (one running back, four wideouts), 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends) and then we’ll get into some heavy packages with an extra lineman in there, as well.
Penn State’s four-back rotation should continue Saturday. The Lions were without true freshman Noah Cain for most of the Michigan State game. Cain, who leads the Lions in rushing with 350 yards, suffered a lower-leg injury in the first quarter and did not return. But the bye week evidently has done wonders for the first-year runner. Franklin was also asked about veteran corner John Reid, who was also injured early in the MSU game.
“Yeah, John Reid and Noah Cain’s availability Saturday, we’re expecting them to go,” Franklin said.
Reid, Tariq Castro-Fields and Marquise Wilson will be tested by Minnesota’s big wideouts. Reid is listed at 5-10, 181, Castro-Fields is 6-0, 197 and Wilson, a true freshman, measures 5-11, 173.
“Obviously John Reid is not the biggest corner, but he’s big enough and he’s crafty and he understands the game and he understands the body position and all of those types of things,” Franklin said.
“That’s going to be a challenge. You know, it’s going to be a challenge with Castro and John and our young corners going against big, physical receivers that are playing at a very high level and playing confident. The quarterback (Tanner Morgan) is extremely accurate. He puts the ball in positions for those guys to be able to go make plays.”
Later, Franklin praised Wilson for his confident approach to playing defense.
“Marquis — there may not be anybody more confident than Marquis, and he thinks when the ball is in the air, it is his, every time,” Franklin said.
“You know, Trent (Gordon) is doing a good job with that, as well. That’s an area we have to continue to build, but it’s tough. It’s a tough responsibility and task.”
Expect defensive tackles Robert Windsor and PJ Mustipher to see heavier workloads against the Gophers. PSU will be without starting defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, who Franklin suspended for one game for a spitting incident at Michigan State. Mustipher has been Shelton’s back through eight games.
“I think you’ll see probably P.J. and Rob probably get between 15 more reps a game,” Franklin said. “Could be 20. Probably 15 more reps in this game. We think that they can handle that, we do.”