October 22, 2010

Preview: Penn State at Minnesota

Penn State's just gotta win, right? RIGHT?!?!

(Photo: GopherSports.com)
It get a feeling this is going to be just another weird week in a very weird season. Penn State heads out to play Minnesota, a team that hasn't won in seven weeks. The game is in TCF Bank Stadium, a place Penn State's never before visited. And the Gophers' head coach is now Jeff Horton, a guy 99 percent of you never heard of before this week. Oh yeah, that's because Minnesota just fired the actual head coach, Tim Brewster.

I told you it's weird.

But Penn State has a bunch of players coming back from injuries (not all of them, though), had a nice bye week, and hopefully a little more excitement to play football. Because, hell, it sure didn't look like this team wanted to play football the last time it took the field.

Let's get to it...

The Minnesota Defense

Bad. Like, worst in the Big Ten bad. Minnesota is giving up 31.7 points per game, including a league-worst 31 touchdowns. The pass defense hasn't been terrible (213.1 pypg/6th Big Ten), but the run defense has (201.1 rypg/11th Big Ten) by a long shot. The opener started out decent enough, giving up only 17 points to a less-than pathetic MTSU team on the road. But then Minnesota did what Minnesota usually does, at least using the last few years as the sample pool.

The next six opponents rolled off points totals of 41, 32, 34, 29, 41, and 28, all Minnesota losses. That's what got Brewster fired. It's not even like Minnesota's defense is a decent unit that gets a lot of bad breaks. No, this defense is bad from top to bottom of almost every statistic. Including those already cited, the Gophers are allowing opponents to convert a staggering 50 percent on third downs, 5.6 yards per rush, and 414.3 yards of total offense per game.

Looking back at Penn State's first six opponents, none of them had poor defenses. Three of them--Alabama, Iowa and Illinois--have turned out to be elite (Bama/Iowa) or very underrated (Illini) defensive football teams. This is easily the worst defense Penn State will have faced so far in 2010. With Minnesota's gross inability to stop anyone's running game, Penn State may not have to force the ball into the air much. But every time we say something like that, the opposite seems to happen this year. So I'll break this down as if Penn State will throw the ball around a bit.

Rob Bolden warmups [2]
Rob Bolden didn't have a good day against Illinois.
(Photo: Mike/LBU)
PSU Pass Offense vs. Minnesota

Rob Bolden is a good quarterback, but younger than any we've seen starting for Penn State in 20 years. I hate to harp on that, but it does matter. He hasn't had a good game passing the ball since Temple. Against Illinois, it was dreadful. This week, however, I like his chances to have a very productive day against the Gophers. Bolden may not light the field on fire, but there's no reason to think he'll continue to struggle like he did against Illinois.

Minnesota's opponents haven't had to air it out that much, but when they do, it works. Part of that comes from the total lack of any pass rush from the defensive front seven. The Gophers have sacked opposing quarterbacks THREE times all year. That's dead last nationally. If Penn State's offensive line had trouble keeping pressure away from Bolden this week, words will not suffice to express the level of hysteria you'll see from the fan base on Sunday.

Impact Spot: Play-calling... Usually I do not discuss play-calling, because I'm not a football coach. But sometimes it becomes obvious to even a lay man what a team can do to beat another team. Bolden has been very comfortable on roll-out passes and other "moving" pass plays. Minnesota has been bad at defending them this season, including giving up some easy pull-down scrambles by opposing quarterbacks. See what I'm getting at here?

PSU Rush Offense vs. Minnesota

Here's where it gets easy. Well, easy until Penn State makes it difficult. If there were ever a better live-action analogy for "banging your head against the wall," it was the Iso run plays Penn State called against Illinois. They didn't work. Everyone knew after the first quarter they weren't going to work. But you know what? Penn State kept running them for little or no gain.

This week, Minnesota could be the bag of frozen veggies for Penn State's aching head. The Gophers run defense hasn't been bad. It's been horrendously, disgustingly, atrocious. I already mentioned the 200 yards allowed per game; but how about the 18 rush touchdowns allowed this year? It's the perfect opportunity for Penn State to run the ball effectively inside the red zone.

Impact Spot: The Passing Game... Illinois loaded up on the run, while challenging Penn State to beat them through the air. Against Minnesota, that could happen again. But this time, the pass game can be a real threat, opening up the run, and getting the 8th and 9th defender out of the box. One hand will have to wash the other for Penn State this week. Bonus Impact Spot: Throw in a little Silas Redd this week.

The Minnesota Offense

Here's where Minnesota can pull off what Illinois did against Penn State, play keep away and exploit an unreliable Nittany Lions defense. With offensive coordinator Jeff Horton being promoted to interim head coach, not much will change on that side of the ball. The Gophers run a multiple set offense, which used to use QB Adam Weber more as part of the running game, but now have swayed towards keeping him back to pass. Still, Weber has the legs to get out of trouble, not unlike Nate Scheelhaase did two weeks ago.

The Gophers are averaging a respectable 380.1 total yards per game (8th Big Ten), but the conference is offense-heavy this year. Minnesota has tried to be balanced between the run and pass. Though, the pass game is carrying this unit with 238.6 yards per game, compared to just 141.6 rushing yards per game. If the Gophers had anything resembling a functional defense, they'd probably have a .500 record this year.

It's tough to compare this game tit-for-tat with the Illinois loss. The Illini defense smothered the Penn State offense, keeping the Lions D on the field and wearing it down. If Penn State's offense does perk up this week--which seems very likely against this Minnesota D--the defense will have the chance to rest for more than the length of a three-and-out.

Minnesota Pass Offense vs. Penn State

Adam Weber has been around the block a few times. A senior, he has led the Gophers as an 1-11 squad, and a nationally ranked team. So nothing this week will be new to him. Even with the coaching change, Horton is still in charge of the offense, meaning little adjustment (if any) for Weber. He's quietly having a very good season, coming into this game as the No. 4 passer in the Big Ten, while tossing 14 touchdowns to only six interceptions. His wide receivers and offensive line aren't world-beaters, but they do their jobs while Weber makes them look better than they are.

D'Anton Lynn [1]
D'Anton Lynn could be tested early
against the Gophers. (Photo: Mike/LBU)
 Penn State hasn't been challenged by any team's passing game, other than at Alabama and Iowa. But neither of those teams had much concern for going to the air, due to Penn State's bad run defense this year. Against Minnesota, Penn State has a chance to load up the box to stop the run, while keeping just three back deep. But that will require excellent games from Stephon Morris and D'Anton Lynn, and even better leadership from Drew Astorino. With Nick Sukay out for the year, and redshirt freshman Malcolm Willis taking his spot at safety, the experienced players must step up.

Impact Spot: Linebackers... I just got finished talking about the secondary, yet I talk about Penn State's linebackers? Yup. Even Joe Paterno called out this unit after the Illinois game, saying it was "like they never saw a pass before." Ouch. Chris Colasanti is leading the Big Ten in tackles per game, but his pass coverage in the middle has left much to be desired. He's far from the only culprit, but he has been the only linebacker to lock down a position as his own this year.

Minnesota Rush Offense vs. Penn State

This is no Illinois, or Iowa, or even Temple. Minnesota is most definitely not Alabama, either. There is no excuse for Penn State to get gashed on defense like we've seen far too often this year. The Gophers average only about 15 more yards per game (141 ypg) rushing than Penn State (126 ypg), and have been almost as notoriously stubborn running up the middle as Penn State has been this season. Duane Bennett has averaged nearly the same yards per game (61.7) as Evan Royster (64.7), but Minnesota has gotten more production from its reserve running back, DeLeon Eskridge, adding 47.6 yards per game this year.

If Penn State gets Sean Stanley back this week (suspension), it should help out a terrible situation at defensive end. With Jack Crawford and Eric Latimore both out this week (Latimore for the season), every able body counts. However, up the middle Penn State has been great, with Ollie Ogbu and Devon Still playing their guts out in an attempt to compensate for the lack of linebacker run support. Minnesota will move the ball on the ground against Penn State, but don't expect another 250-plus day allowed by the Lions.

Michael Mauti [2]
Michael Mauti's return from injury
should give the defense a boost. (Photo: Mike/LBU)
Impact Spot: Linebackers, again... All eyes will be on these guys this week. That's not to say the other positions won't matter. But with Gerald Hodges, Michael Mauti and Bani Gbadyu coming back from injuries, there could be a big turnaround in store. We can at least hope. No matter how you look at it, the linebackers have to start filling the gaps and get aggressive against the run.

Special Teams

The Nittany Lions have had some of the best special teams play we've seen in years. Collin Wagner has been fantastic, while Anthony Fera is improving on punts and still great on kickoffs. The punt return game is still struggling, but at least it's not dead weight this year. The kickoff returners are still the best "offensive" weapon on the special teams, as Chaz Powell leads the Big Ten in kickoff return average (29.8) and Stephfon Green not far behind (23.1). Minnesota doesn't do well keeping the returners away from the ball, with only two touchbacks all season. Penn State conversely has the best kickoff coverage unit in the Big Ten, with 13 touchbacks. Penn State should have little problem winning the special teams battle. Against a team like Minnesota, it could be the deciding factor.

Impact Spot: Punt returns... This is nit-picking, but we're still waiting for Devon Smith or Justin Brown to display more consistency on punt returns. A nice long return (for a TD, maybe?) is the kind of play Penn State needs to win at least a few more games. What better place to start than in Minneapolis this weekend?

Two things that could really piss you off...
or make you really, really happy.

Red Zone Woes... Same old story. But at least Minnesota is 10th in the Big Ten in red zone defense (PSU is last).

Run defense... If Minnesota rushes for more than 150 yards, it will be a very bad day for Penn State. But something under that would make me happy personally, and would probably mean Penn State won the game.


You thought Illinois was a must-win game? Ha! A loss to Minnesota this weekend would probably cause the internet to collapse, especially on the nutso message boards. Penn State should be fine against the Gophers. The big problems for the Nittany Lions have been their red zone offense, which Minnesota has been terrible at defending (19 TDs allowed in RZ, 14 rushing), and sustaining drives that result in more than field goals and punts. Minnesota is the worst team in the league on third down defense, and the worst at keeping points and touchdowns off the board. Then there's the upheaval factor of Tim Brewster's firing this week. Interim coaches don't do well, no matter how good they are. It's a tough situation for the Gophers right now... lucky for Penn State, huh?

Check out our LBU staff picks tomorrow for score predictions

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