Penn State vs. Minnesota: Who has the edge?

November 9, 2013 

Quarterbacks

Philip Nelson hasn’t set boxscores on fire with his numbers this season, but he has done well managing games and relying on a strong rushing attack. Nelson also takes advantage of running opportunities when plays break down. He tossed a career-high four touchdown passes to seal his team’s last win. Freshman Mitch Leidner adds a running element at the QB spot. Christian Hackenberg continues to make progress and his chemistry with wideout Allen Robinson improves week to week. Not only does Hackenberg trust his receivers to make plays for him, he also trusts his strong arm — his clutch pass to Kyle Carter last week proved that. Hackenberg’s arm strength will be a key factor as winds are expected to be whipping through TCF Bank Stadium. Advantage: Penn State

Running backs

This matchup pits sudden workhorses against one another. Bill Belton continues his remarkable turnaround season with 85 carries over the past three games. Over that span, Belton has rushed for 384 yards and two touchdowns. Minnesota’s David Cobb has come on strong lately after starting the season as an unproven commodity. He’s earned 429 yards and a touchdown over 80 carries the past three games. Cobb is aided by hard-hitting fullback Mike Henry. Penn State’s Zach Zwinak added a pair of gloves to his gameday wardrobe and was able to earn confidence-building carries after fumble issues plagued him in the past. Akeel Lynch is questionable with a sprained MCL for Penn State. It’s a push.

Wide receivers/Tight ends

Allen Robinson continues to obliterate opposing secondaries and is just 11 catches away from his own single-season record for receptions. He’s also 41 yards away from Bobby Engram’s single-season receiving yardage record. Brandon Felder continues to play a solid second fiddle for Penn State but his dropped touchdown in the end zone against Illinois is concerning. Kyle Carter came up with a big catch in overtime last week. Minnesota’s leading receiver, Derrick Engel, has just 22 catches on the season for 361 yards. His five touchdowns are just one shy of Robinson’s total, however. Maxx Williams is a big, physical tight end and is a sturdy red zone option in Minnesota’s run-first offense. Advantage: Penn State

Offensive line

Penn State got a boost against Illinois when usual right-tackle Adam Gress was able to switch to the left side to cover for Donovan Smith, who struggled mightily against Ohio State. Smith was able to get back in, however, but went down in the second half with an unspecified injury. He was able to return and should be ready to rejoin the lineup. Ty Howle, Miles Dieffenbach and John Urschel played physically against the Illini and their aggressive play yielded superb results in the running game. Minnesota’s front five has been pretty consistent this year, opening holes for Cobb and getting downfield on linebackers. Three of them are upperclassmen. As a unit, they’ve only allowed two sacks of Nelson over the past three games. Advantage: Minnesota

Defensive line

Anthony Zettel has come on strong for Penn State, which could use a five-man front much like it did against Michigan to slow down Minnesota’s running game. Defensive tackle play from DaQuan Jones, Kyle Baublitz and Austin Johnson will be key for the Nittany Lions while Zettel, C.J. Olaniyan and Deion Barnes — who still has just 1/2 of a sack — will be tasked with keeping Minnesota runners from gaining the edge. Meanwhile, Minnesota’s defensive line has played extremely well of late with 91/2 tackles for loss in the past three games. They’ve been able to ratchet up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks with four sacks and three forced fumbles in that span. The Gophers are strong on the inside as Ra’Shede Hageman is an NFL prospect and Cameron Botticelli is having a nice season. They’ve combined for 141/2 tackles for loss. Theiren Cockran and Alex Keith can also get to opposing passers from the edge and have a combined 71/2 sacks to show for their efforts. Advantage: Minnesota

Linebackers

Minnesota is led by Damien Wilson who hs 50 tackles and 51/2 for losses. Aaron Hill is the only linebacker who has started every game for Minnesota this season. He has 14 tackles over the past three games. James Manuel has contributed for the Gophers as well. Ben Kline played his best game to date for Penn State, while Mike Hull and Glenn Carson continue to man the middle of the defense for the Nittany Lions. Hull continues to be a valuable asset in coverage. Stephen Obeng-Agyapong and Nyeem Wartman have been used sparingly lately. It’s a push.

Defensive backs

Penn State’s secondary made big plays at key times last week and changed the game with an early interception from Jordan Lucas and a tipped-pass-interception from Adrian Amos to Ryan Keiser. Still healing from hand surgery, Keiser’s presence is a valued one for Penn State. Amos has shifted back to boundary corner to give Penn State a more physical look. Lucas continues to be versatile, shifting from field corner to the nickel spot on most passing downs. Trevor Williams manning the field corner spot in the nickel package is a matchup teams will continue to try and exploit. Minnesota hasn’t been particularly good against the pass and is giving up 238 yards per game. The Gophers have turned two interceptions into touchdowns however. Safety Brock Vereen is this unit’s playmaker. Both of these units use a bend-but-don’t-break approach and usually tighten up in the redzone. It’s a push.

Special teams

After a white-hot start, Sam Ficken has cooled off for Penn State and has missed four of his last nine kicks. Minnesota’s Chris Hawthorne is 11 for 14 on the year. He’s also missed three extra points. The Gophers rank higher in kickoff and punt returns and punting and kickoff coverage. Advantage: Minnesota

Coaching/Intangibles

The Gophers haven’t missed a beat with Jerry Kill in the press box and Tracy Claeys calling the shots on the sideline. It’s actually been a rallying point for the team. Minnesota boasts the best red zone offense in the Big Ten. It has turned the ball over just once in the red area and is the least penalized team in the conference. Penn State is coming off an ugly, 11-penalty affair and has not played well on the road this season. Advantage: Minnesota

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