No. 4 Penn State boasts the obvious edge against No. 17 Minnesota in Saturday’s Big Ten battle of the unbeatens — the Nittany Lions are 7-point favorites — but, if PSU wants to win on the field and not on paper, it still needs to dominate its matchups.
Here are the two key matchups to Saturday’s game (noon, ABC) that we think will directly to determine the outcome:
Josh Moyer: Penn State secondary vs. Minnesota WRs
James Franklin didn’t mince words at his weekly press conference Tuesday, calling Minnesota the “best wide receiver group we have played.”
There were two big reasons for Franklin’s statement, namely 6-foot-2 wideout Tyler Johnson and 6-foot-2 receiver Rashod Bateman. Those two might already form the best 1-2 punch at receiver in the conference, and both are posting up some unprecedented production for the Golden Gophers. Johnson will leave the school as one of its most decorated receivers, and he set single-season school records last year for receiving yards (1,169) and touchdowns (12); Bateman broke a school freshman record last season with 51 catches for 704 yards, and he is the second-fastest Gopher to reach 1,000 career receiving yards.
Both are tall, both use their bodies well, and both have been a force in the passing game in 2019. We don’t mean to get too numbers heavy here, but Minnesota’s corps is unique. Bateman is third in the conference in receiving yards per game (80.5), while Johnson is fourth (78.3). Together, they’ve accounted for 78 percent of the passing offense and 13 of 21 passing touchdowns.
In other words? “This is a great group of receivers,” Penn State cornerback Tariq Castro-Fields said. “Their top two, they just get open.”
Minnesota prefers to control the clock and run the ball, but odds are PJ Fleck will have to adjust that mind-set Saturday. Statistically, the best run defense Minnesota has faced has been Georgia Southern’s No. 40-ranked unit. Penn State is No. 2. (And, on paper, Penn State has already faced two teams with a better average on rushing attempts than Minnesota — so this challenge isn’t without precedent for the PSU defense.)
That means Minnesota will likely be forced to win through the air, and that means both Johnson and Bateman — maybe with a little dose of No. 3 WR Chris Autman-Bell, who stands 6-foot-1 — will have to put this offense on their shoulders.
Penn State’s secondary hasn’t seen a group of receivers quite like this one so far this season. Sure, it’s seen taller wideouts — Michigan’s Nico Collins stands 6-foot-4 and Michigan State’s Cody White is 6-foot-3 — but neither has a quarterback as competent as Minnesota’s Tanner Morgan. Plus, Minnesota’s Bateman reportedly runs in the 4.4s, and Johnson’s NFL stock has been on a steady rise.
What complicates this even more for Penn State is the fact that fifth-year cornerback John Reid is about two weeks removed from an upper-body injury against Michigan State. Franklin remains optimistic Reid will play Saturday, but the head coach has been historically mum on injury specifics. The Nittany Lions’ secondary is banged up, and it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if Penn State once again has to rely a bit more on true freshmen Keaton Ellis and Marquis Wilson.
Penn State’s front-seven is elite; the secondary is above-average. So if there’s a place on this defense Minnesota could take advantage, it’s in the defensive backfield. And Bateman and Johnson will do everything they can to make sure Minnesota stays perfect.
Penn State’s secondary won’t have it easy on Saturday.
Jon Sauber: Penn State DL vs. Minnesota OL
The Nittany Lions’ defensive linemen have a massive test Saturday. They’ll take on one of the biggest and best offensive lines in the country when they take on the Golden Gophers.
Minnesota’s offensive line has been very good this season and has allowed the team to average 204.5 rushing yards per game, good for third in the Big Ten and 31st in the country. The unit’s size is nearly unparalleled, especially on the right side. Starting right guard Curtis Dunlap and starting right tackle Daniel Faalele are a combined 770 pounds. The duo has been a problem for opposing defenders all season, and that could be the case once again Saturday.
Unfortunately for the Nittany Lions, they’ll be without one of their best, and biggest, interior defensive linemen Saturday. Redshirt junior defensive tackle Antonio Shelton has been suspended for the game after he spit on a Michigan State player in the team’s final game in October.
Without Shelton, redshirt senior Robert Windsor and true sophomore PJ Mustipher will have to pick up more snaps on the inside. While Mustipher and Windsor are both more than capable of picking up the slack, they don’t have the same skill-set Shelton can provide as a space-eater along the interior.
Instead of trying to match the Gophers’ strength and size without, it’s expected the Nittany Lions will use their athleticism to their advantage. They’ll need to force Minnesota to throw to do that, which means they’ll have to shut down the running game.
It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Penn State defensive coordinator utilize run blitzing to occupy blockers and fill gaps in the run game.
Forcing Minnesota into passing situations will allow the defense’s aforementioned athleticism to shine in this one. That means allowing the team’s best speed-oriented pass rushers, such as redshirt junior Shaka Toney and redshirt freshman Jayson Oweh, to line up across from the 400-pound Faalele and attack off the edge.
If Toney and Oweh are in a position to rack up pressures and sacks, then the Nittany Lions will have forced the Minnesota offense out of its game plan and into Penn State’s hands.