This weekend Penn State looks to win back-to-back games for the first time since beating Syracuse and Eastern Michigan to begin the season.
Following a 47-7 beatdown of the Eagles, the Nittany Lions have alternated wins and losses the past six games. Wins over Kent State, Michigan and Illinois last week were sandwiched between losses to UCF, Indiana and Ohio State in subsequent weeks.
Coach Bill O’Brien and his team hope to buck that trend this weekend when the Lions (5-3, 2-2 Big Ten) head to Minnesota to face the Gophers at noon on ESPN2.
But back-to-back wins for the first time in two months won’t come easy for coach O’Brien’s crew as the Gophers have surprised in the Big Ten behind quarterback Philip Nelson and tailback David Cobb, racing out to a 7-2 (3-2 Big Ten) record so far in 2013.
The Gophers rank 19th in the nation with 221.1 yards rushing per game and have won three-straight since being blown out by then #19 Michigan last month.
Priority No. 1 for Penn State on Saturday will undoubtedly be stopping the Gopher rushing attack, which could be a tough task as the Nittany Lions’ defense has struggled mightily in 2013 so far.
In the past two weeks the Penn State defense has surrendered nearly 1,100 yards to Ohio State and Illinois. While most of the damage came in the thrashing at Ohio State, the Illini moved the ball plenty fine to the tune of 411 total yards in a narrow defeat last week in overtime.
Even with the defense allowing 27.8 points per game, the Nittany Lion offense has answered the bell, averaging 433 total yards just a shade under 30 points per game. Led by freshman QB Christian Hackenberg, the offense has been able to make up for the teams’ defensive shortcomings to date.
But with the Gophers’ ball control offense on tap this week, Penn State’s best defense might just be a good offense.
The Nittany Lions controlled the ball for nearly a whole ten minutes of game clock more than the Illini in last weeks win. O’Brien can save his defense from being worn down by the Minnesota offense by keeping control of the ball while Hackenberg and company have the ball.
That ball control effort starts with the offensive line, which has to win the battle in the trenches early and then leans on tailbacks Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak to keep the pile moving and churning for yards and first downs.
Belton comes off a career-high in carries (36) and yards (201) in last weeks win, and has firmly entrenched himself as the top option in the Penn State backfield. But don’t forget about Zwinak, a bruising runner who could come in to pick up some tough yards on Saturday to keep the chains moving.
In a perfect world the Lions will control the ball and win the line of scrimmage early, then setup some play-action passes for Hackenberg to find Allen Robinson downfield. Robinson is having a fantastic junior season with 66 catches for 1,043 yards and six touchdowns.
The key factor in this Big Ten matchup could be home-field advantage. Penn State is 0-2 in true road games in 2013 while losing by a combined 69 points. Minnesota, meanwhile, is 4-1 at home in 2013 and has scored 16 rushing touchdowns in those games; Penn State has yet to score a rushing touchdown on the road.
Expect a typical physical, hard-nosed Big Ten conference game to emerge from these two teams with Minnesota holding the edge at home against a young Penn State team.