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Two of the last undefeated teams in the country will face off in Minneapolis on Saturday when the fifth-ranked Penn State Nittany Lions go to battle against the 13th-ranked Minnesota Gophers. With a two-game lead in the Big Ten West heading into Saturday, the Gophers are hoping to stay on track for a shot at the Big Ten title but have both Iowa and Wisconsin remaining on deck. For Penn State, the pressure is officially on as they are now fourth in this season’s first cut of the official College Football Playoff rankings. Let’s take a deeper look at this Big Ten matchup Saturday that will surely have postseason implications.
Penn State Nittany Lions @ Minnesota Golden Gophers
Saturday, November 9th, 2019 – 12:00 pm EST
Minnesota +6.5 O/U 48 (via PointsBet)
Things are unfolding exactly how they thought they would in State College, with the Nittany Lions entering Week 11 unbeaten, fresh of handling the Michigan Big Ten schools in back-to-back weeks. Their last time on the field prior to last week’s bye week, they traveled to East Lansing and knocked off Michigan State, 28-7, as 5.5-point favorites. Quarterback Sean Clifford continued his impressive season, tossing four touchdowns to bring his total on the season to 20 (with just three interceptions). The story, however, for Penn State, as it’s been all season, was their lock-down defense. Against Sparty, the Nittany Lions allowed under 11 points for the fifth time this season, and are just one of two teams remaining allowing single-digit points per game (9.6). They have been especially stout in their rushing defense, allowing just 2.03 yards per rush to lead the nation and second place by over a half yard per rush.
The Golden Gophers enter this weekend’s matchup with as much excitement around the program as there’s ever been, as recently extended (seven years) head coach P.J. Fleck has this program humming to a 9-0 start. Minnesota’s last time on the field two weeks ago was a 52-10 rout of Maryland, a game in which senior running back Rodney Smith rushed for over 100 yards for his fifth-straight Big Ten game. Playing mostly from ahead this season, Smith has had a strong start to the season, ranking 12th in the country at 111.13 yards per game. Like the Nittany Lions, the Golden Gophers have had no issues putting up points this season, ranking 14th in the nation at 38.4 points per game. Second-year quarterback Tanner Morgan has shown significant improvement from 2018-19, accounting for 19 touchdowns on the season but, more importantly, just four interceptions
The last time these two cross-division foes faced off (2016), the Nittany Lions needed an overtime touchdown from Saquon Barkley to seal the victory in State College. While these two teams look significantly different than they did in that contest three seasons ago, the Nittany Lions still hold the talent edge, though the coaching gap is much, much closer.
While both teams are averaging almost identical offensive points per game (38.5 & 38.4), the edge to me in this one comes on the defensive side of the ball where Penn State ranks among the elite. Their ability to contain the running game is especially worrisome for a Golden Gophers team that relies on it to establish their offense. Penn State has also accomplished its prowess against some of the nation’s best in Michigan, Iowa, and on the road at a hostile Michigan State. While you can’t hold it against them in the rankings because they’ve beaten those put in front of them, Minnesota’s toughest test to date has been a road game at Purdue in late September.