UNIVERSITY PARK — When Bill O’Brien watches clips of Minnesota — Penn State’s upcoming opponent — he sees a team not on the rise, but one that is peaking and ready to continue its ascent up the Big Ten pecking order.
The Golden Gophers (7-2, 3-2) will host the Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2) on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium at noon in a matchup between young teams, one looking to continue its uptrend with another looking to buck the trend that’s seen it struggle on the road.
After opening the season with a win at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., Penn State is winless in games at Bloomington, Ind., and Columbus, Ohio.
O’Brien is hoping the third road game in the Big Ten will be the charm for his team.
“Obviously we haven’t played as well on the road. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Hopefully that changes,” O’Brien said. “I think we’ve practiced well. I think we’ve been prepared for these games on the road. I know that these guys came out (Monday) and practiced really well. I think we’ll string some good practices together and be ready to go on Saturday. So hopefully we can change the tide of not playing well on the road right now.”
Penn State could be without running back Akeel Lynch. The redshirt freshman sprained his MCL against Ohio State and missed the game against Illinois. He is day-to-day, O’Brien said.
Meanwhile, safety Ryan Keiser and linebacker Ben Kline continue to progress from hand and shoulder injuries, respectively, and are expected to be available.
Penn State will need all the help it can get. The Nittany Lions played just 42 scholarship players against the Illini and now will make their longest road trip so far to face a rising Gophers squad. Minnesota has rallied around head coach Jerry Kill and won three straight games.
“This is a really good football team,” O’Brien said.
Kill has taken time away from the team to battle epilepsy but has remained in the press box to keep a watchful eye on his squad. In the meantime, the Gophers have thrived with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys calling the shots from the sideline.
In their past three games, against Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana, the Gophers have imposed their will on their opponents with a physical ground game that has churned out 695 yards and five touchdowns. Running back David Cobb has emerged as a workhorse back for Minnesota. He’s carried the ball 80 times for 429 yards over the last three games.
“They’re a young football team that’s gained some confidence,” Kill said. “And when you’ve had some success — you can talk to a program, ‘Hey, we’re turning the corner, we’re getting better.’ And you can keep telling them, ‘This is what you have to do to get better.’ But until you have a little success, it’s hard to believe in that.
“We’ve had blind faith for a while but now they’ve started having success.”
While the Gophers have depended on their running game, they’ve also got contributions from sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, who tossed four touchdown passes against Indiana and has managed games well while relying on his team’s strong running game.
But Nelson suffered a hip-pointer injury in the Gophers’ most recent game, against Indiana and will be monitored as the week progresses.
“We anticipate that he’ll be ready to go,” Kill said.
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter @bytravisjohnson.