MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — It wasn’t the start Penn State was looking for and Bill Belton’s first-play fumble proved ominous for the Nittany Lion offense.
Either way, Penn State coach Bill O’Brien has no worries about Belton, or any of his running backs for that matter.
“I didn’t take Bill out because of the fumble,” O’Brien said of the botched exchange between the tailback and quarterback Christian Hackenberg. “I think it’s never really good to fumble on the first play of the game, but I do think Zach (Zwinak) was running well today. There’s differences in their skillset but it’s not like one guy is light years ahead of the other guy.”
As he’s done all season, O’Brien flip-flopped his backs throughout the game. Belton didn’t sit on the chilly benches, either. He made an impact in the passing game. Belton finished Penn State’s 24-10 loss to Minnesota as Penn State’s second-leading receiver.
He caught passes of 30 and 11 yards — the 30-yarder set the Penn State offense up in the red zone while the 11-yarder was one of Penn State’s few positive red-area plays.
But Zwinak’s running — and ability to hold on to the football — was a bright spot for Penn State. The burly back pounded the Minnesota defense for 150 yards on 26 carries.
“We just play the guys that are gaining yards,” O’Brien said.
Penn State’s offensive line continued its recent string of aggressive play and consistently won battles at the line of scrimmage.
The Nittany Lions used jumbo sets to do so.
Garry Gilliam shifted to the left of left tackle Donovan Smith and the two big men easily plowed the way for Zwinak’s six-yard touchdown run in the first half. They also sealed off defenders to allow Zwinak to gallop 38 yards earlier on the same drive.
Penn State also opted to use three tight-end sets for most of the afternoon. Kyle Carter, Adam Breneman and Jesse James were heavily involved in the game plan and occupied their defenders, knocking them backward all day.
In two games, Penn State running backs have racked up 440 yards — the most in a two-game Big Ten stretch since the Nittany Lions put up a combined 424 in weeks 5 and 6 of 2011 against Northwestern and Iowa.
Minnesota worked the middle of the field with perfection, and little resistance from Penn State, in the first half.
Most of the Gophers’ damage over the middle came on third- and fourth-down plays. Quarterback Philip Nelson delivered perfect throws to tight ends Maxx Williams, Derrick Engel and Donovahn Jones to keep scoring drives alive.
The sophomore quarterback threw a dart to Williams who sprinted straight ahead through Penn State’s coverage for a gain of 24 on fourth-and-two. It set up first-and-goal and led to Minnesota’s first touchdown.
On Minnesota’s next drive, Nelson continued to look to the middle. He found Engel between the hashmarks for a gain of 27 on third-and-nine to steer his offense into Penn State territory. On the same drive, Nelson faced a fourth-and-eight and delivered a bullet to Jones, who crossed in front of corner Adrian Amos and picked up 11 yards. It kept another touchdown drive going.
“Give Minnesota a lot of credit. They do a great job,” O’Brien said. “They deserve to be 8-2. It seemed like we made a call, they had the right call for it and we didn’t stop them on third down in the first half. But we did a better job in the second half, obviously.”
Penn State couldn’t get out of its own way in the red zone. It was the difference in the game.
The Nittany Lions got inside Minnesota’s 20-yard line four times. They ran 13 offensive plays, scored one touchdown, kicked a field goal and lost a fumble. While Zwinak scored on a six-yard touchdown run, the rest of Penn State’s red zone play was forgettable. Without Zwinak’s run, Penn State’s offense rushed for a combined minus-one yard and passed for just 11 — on one one pass to Belton — on seven attempts.
Hackenberg delivered good throws on three occasions to get his team inside the red zone. He added passes of 14 and 22 yards and flicked a screen to Belton to set his team up in scoring position. But his production tailed off after that.
“The red zone is a tough area for a young guy. There are tighter windows,” O’Brien said. “Things happen faster down there. We had some plays down there and just didn’t connect. We’ll definitely work on it and try to do better next week.”
Day To Remember
Brock Vereen insisted after his team’s win that teammate and fellow Gopher cornerback Eric Murray played the best game of any Minnesota defensive player all season. Vereen had a good view of it.
Murray marked Allen Robinson, and although he took one pass interference penalty, Murray slowed down Penn State’s star for much of the game. He also helped shut down Brandon Felder.
In addition, Murray was all over the field making plays on every level. He recovered Belton’s first-play fumble, tipped a Hackenberg pass away from Felder and to himself for an interception that was wiped out due to an offsides penalty, and notched one-third of his team-leading nine tackles in run support. Two of them came at the line of scrimmage while the third came when he chased down Zwinak from across the field after the Penn State back rumbled 38 yards down the sideline.
Day To Forget
A week after dropping a touchdown pass against Illinois, Felder continued to struggle to catch the ball against Minnesota.
The senior came into the game as the team’s No. 2 receiver with 27 catches to Robinson’s 73. He was targeted five times but failed to reel in any of the throws.
Felder dropped three passes and despite his height advantage, couldn’t beat Murray on a 50-50 pass in the end zone that Murray intercepted in the second quarter. Luckily for Penn State, Minnesota’s Hendrick Ekpe was offsides and the turnover didn’t stand.
Key Play You Already Forgot
Minnesota’s offense hadn’t done much since the first half and was dealt the worst possible field position with 6:33 to play in the third quarter after Alex Butterworth pinned the Gophers at their own 1 yard-line.
But David Cobb wiped that field position disadvantage away with a 44-yard sprint through his offensive line on second down. The Gophers would need it badly as they gave up two tackles for losses and Nelson was sacked for a loss of seven on the next thee plays.
Cobb’s long burst set up a Peter Mortell punt that bounced down to the Penn State 2 and the field position battle turned just like that.
“We ran wheel route because we knew all week that they might be able to bite on it because with all the motions we do with running the ball outside. So I was able to get around and when I saw him bite, I figured if I turned up he probably wasn’t going to run with me,” — Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams on his second-quarter, 24-yard touchdown catch with Mike Hull in coverage.