UNIVERSITY PARK — The Penn State defense has seen its share of spread offenses and mobile quarterbacks.
There was Indiana’s combo of Tre Roberson and Nate Sudfeld, Michigan’s Devin Gardner, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and finally, Illinois’ Nathan Scheelhaase.
Now the Nittany Lions (5-3, 2-2) will lineup against a more traditional offense at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, where the power running attack of the Minnesota Golden Gophers (7-2, 3-2) awaits.
Anthony Zettel and his defensive teammates can’t wait.
“I feel like our defense is set up really well for the run, and from that standpoint they’re kind of like Michigan. They like to come and run it down your throat,” Zettel said. “I think we’ll enjoy that.”
The Gophers have found success with their current run-first model. Led by a physical offensive line, running back David Cobb has posted three-straight 100-plus yard rushing games wherein Minnesota has finished with 176, 271 and 248 yards on the ground in wins over Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana.
The three-game conference winning streak is the longest for the Gophers since the 2008 team beat Indiana, Illinois and Purdue consecutively midway through that season. But even then Minnesota lost its last five games and finished a mediocre 7-6.
Now, the Gophers have already equaled their highest win total in the last six seasons with three games left this fall.
“You don’t just go 7-2 being a slouch team,” Penn State safety Adrian Amos said. “They’re really physical. We were watching film. They like to run the ball a lot. So we have to match the physical play and play smart.”
That’s usually what the Gophers do. They have turned the ball over just once during their current winning streak.
Cobb has emerged as an every down runner capable of handling heavy workloads. The junior tailback has carried the ball 80 times in the last three games to lead the team’s high-powered rushing attack. His ascension is similar to his Penn State counterpart.
Nittany Lion junior Bill Belton’s has 85 carries over the past three games. He slithered his way for 201 yards against Illinois on 36 carries and is operating in all phases of the game for Penn State.
“It’s very rewarding but it’s not over yet,” Belton said. “There’s still a lot of football left and I have to focus on that.”
Penn State coaches will also be focused on the game clock.
Belton and his teammates understand that Minnesota has dominated teams when it comes to possession time — the Gophers are averaging 6:30 more in possession time than their opponents this season — and that needs to change this week.
“That’s a big deal,” Penn State coach Bill O’Brien said. “You can’t totally change what you do, but you better make sure that you’re not just playing at warp speed the whole game because you could play warp speed the whole game. If you score in a minute and 50 seconds, that’s OK. But your defense has only been on the bench for a minute and 50 seconds and you better make sure you keep scoring. That is hard to do against Minnesota. They’re a good defense.”
On the other side of the ball, the Gophers are led by a standout NFL prospect in Ra’Shede Hageman. The run-stuffing defensive tackle has made a habit of getting to ballcarriers in the backfield this season and leads the team with nine tackles for loss.
It’ll be his job to stop Belton and company. Meanwhile, the Gophers are expecting a balanced attack overall.
While Penn State has leaned on its running game recently, its passing game is always dangerous with Allen Robinson in the lineup. Robinson needs just 11 catches to tie his single-season record for receptions. Meanwhile, Robinson needs just 42 yards to break Bobby Engram’s single-season record for receiving yardage.
“Of everybody in the Big Ten, we’ve got a lot of great coaches, but what (O’Brien) did last year is incredible,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “He’s been in the NFL, worked under (Bill) Belichick and he’s got a great offensive mind. So they’re going to be balanced. They’re going to run the ball and throw it and keep you off balance and they’ve got great talent at the skill positions and a great young quarterback, so we’ll have our work cut out for us.”
Follow Travis Johnson on Twitter for live, in-game updates @bytravisjohnson.