Saturday, November 9, 2013

Elsewhere in the B1G: Penn State 10, Minnesota 24

Heading into the season, if you had told me that Minnesota would have a better chance at winning the division --with the Wolverines sitting at 6-2-- I probably would have asked you to repeat yourself just to make sure I heard you correctly.

At 7-2 (3-2), with a trip to Michigan State remaining, the Gophers still had a shot at the Legends division title, albeit a small one. However, the Gophers needed to take care of business against the visiting Penn State Nittany Lions today at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Gophers got off to a good start after Bill Belton couldn't handle the handoff from Christian Hackenberg on the first play of the game. Minnesota recovered the fumble at the PSU 29, but went three and out; after a 45-yard field goal, the Gophers were out to an early 3-0 lead.

On the next series, Philip Nelson led the Gophers out of danger after PSU had pinned them at their own four. After a pair of timely third down completions and a 16-yard scamper, Nelson marched the Gophers into PSU territory.

With a 4th & 2 at the PSU 28, Minnesota went for it. Nelson held the PSU linebackers with a fake and threw a dart to Maxx Williams up the middle for 24 yards and a first down. David Cobb eventually punched it in from one yard out, giving the Gophers a 10-0 lead. The drive was one more example of Minnesota's 2013 offense at its best: 96 yards in 15 plays and 8:10 of clock burned.

The Nittany Lions needed an answer, and they provided one, with a 6-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in just over two minutes, mostly powered by a steady diet of Zach Zwinak.

Once again, Minnesota embarked on an odyssey of a drive, this time going 70 yards in 13 plays, capped by a Nelson 6-yard touchdown run. To this point, the Gophers went 4-for-7 on third down, which doesn't seem especially notable until you remember that they were also 2-for-2 on fourth down.

Following a Penn State field goal, the Gophers had one more long drive in them, this time an 11-play, 74-yarder to head into the half up 24-10. Watching this Minnesota team, it's hard to believe this is the same squad that got thumped by Iowa at home and lost 42-13 at Michigan.

However, Minnesota's first mistake of the day came about halfway through the third quarter, when Cobb coughed it up and PSU recovered at the Minnesota 37. The defense did its job, though, forcing PSU to punt in what could have been a huge point of resurgence for the Nittany Lions.

Neither team scored in the third, and Penn State was thus forced to go pass-heavy to start the fourth. Faced with a 4th & 9 at the Minnesota 38, it was now or never. Unfortunately for Bill O'Brien, Hackenberg's pass fell incomplete, well wide of his intended target.

While Nelson's improvement was the story of the first half, the story of the second was Minnesota's defense. After getting gashed on the ground in the first half, Minnesota's defense made stops when it needed to in the fourth quarter. After stopping PSU on the aforementioned 4th & 9, the Gophers once again stopped them on 4th down, this time on their own 16.

Once again, PSU drove down into Minnesota territory, this time getting to the UM 1. Although not a "forced" turnover, Hackenberg's fumble and the ensuing Minnesota recovery just about sealed the deal.

With the 24-10 victory, the Gophers moved to 8-2 on the season, with the Badgers coming to town in two weeks; as the folks in Minneapolis know, the Gophers haven't had Paul Bunyan's Axe since 2003. Minnesota will have to solve its run defense issues if it is going to give the Badgers a game, but one thing is for sure: the Gophers will have their best shot at bring the Axe back to the Twin Cities in some time.

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