The No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions (8-0) will take on the No. 17 Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-0) at noon Saturday (ABC) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Here are five things you should keep an eye on during the Big Ten battle:
Can Penn State QB Sean Clifford take another step?
Penn State starting QB Sean Clifford is living up to the hype this season, as he’s already second in the conference in passing yards (1,931), second in passing touchdowns (20) and third in QB rating (164.9). Earlier this week, even Minnesota coach PJ Fleck called him “phenomenal” and “incredibly accurate.”
What makes this weekend’s matchup for Clifford even more interesting than usual is two-fold: For one, Clifford showed the most progress this season right after the Nittany Lions’ first bye week. He used that first bye — which came Sept. 21 — to identify his tendencies, target his weaknesses and fix his footwork. The next result was a 59-0 win over Maryland on Sept. 27 and the most complete game of the James Franklin era. Well, Clifford and Co. are now coming off their second bye, so expecting another step forward isn’t just wishful thinking on the part of fans of the blue-and-white. Clifford is a perfectionist, and having another week to clean up his play should help him — the only question, really, is, “By how much?”
Secondly, Minnesota should provide a stiff challenge for Clifford and the passing attack. James Franklin said he has a “man-crush” on Minnesota DB Antoine Winfield Jr. and, statistically, this will be the best pass defense Penn State has faced. (Minnesota ranks No. 5 nationally by allowing a passer efficiency of 130.01; Pitt, Iowa and Michigan are ranked behind Minnesota but remain in the top 20.)
With weapons such as wideout KJ Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth, Clifford won’t be asked to get this passing game going by himself. But his progress, especially against a tough opponent, should be pretty easy to measure Saturday.
Disparity in special teams
Of the three phases in the game, none has more of a lopsided advantage than Penn State’s special teams.
According to Bill Connelly’s SP+ Rankings, which measure college football efficiency, the Nittany Lions boast the nation’s No. 18 special teams unit. Minnesota? Try No. 91, which puts it somewhere between Michigan State (No. 114) and Pitt (No. 90).
In eight different special-teams categories — including punt returns and defense, kick returns and defense, blocks, field goals, and more — the Golden Gophers have the statistical advantage in just one category: Kick returns. And, yes, while Minnesota is averaging 21 yards to Penn State’s 18.96 yards a return, speedster KJ Hamler just had a return TD called back due to holding.
So, Minnesota has the edge there on paper but, in reality, Hamler and Penn State have the more dangerous return game. Elsewhere, there’s not much debate.
Penn State punter Blake Gillikin has already won two Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week awards since last month; Minnesota punter Jacob Herbers is averaging 38.7 yards per boot, the second-lowest average in the conference. Penn State has blocked one punt and three kicks; Minnesota has blocked zero. Penn State is fourth nationally with 41 touchbacks and has a kicker in Jake Stout who nailed a school-record 57-yard field goal; Minnesota kicker Michael Lantz has missed two extra points and is 5-of-8 on field goals.
You get the idea. Penn State has a chance to break this game open early with its play on special teams. So maybe wait until the commercial breaks to hit the restrooms Saturday afternoon.
Best WR group in the Big Ten?
Forget the Big Ten; Minnesota boasts one of nation’s top receiving trios — with Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, all of whom are 6-foot-1 or taller. In the conference, it definitely has the best 1-2 punch in Johnson-Bateman.
Johnson set single-season school records last season in receiving yards (1,169) and touchdowns (12), and he will leave Minneapolis as one of the Gophers’ most-decorated wideouts. Bateman, a sophomore, has already drawn comparisons to Odell Beckham Jr. after a one-handed catch against Rutgers — and he has reported 4.4 speed as an athletic 6-foot-2 freak.
This is a receiving group that’s better than anything Penn State’s secondary has seen yet this season. Don’t believe us? Even James Franklin said Tuesday it’s the “best wide receiver group we have played.”
A lot might depend on quarterback Tanner Morgan and whether the streaky quarterback shows up Saturday. He’s been both hot and cold this season but, when he’s on, few are better. He was 21-of-22 passing against Purdue for 396 yards and four touchdowns, but he also completed fewer than 55 percent of his passes against Illinois and Rutgers. He’s best throwing in the middle of the field, so it’ll be interesting to see how the Penn State defense adjusts.
This is a unique challenge. Fifth-year cornerback John Reid, who suffered an upper-body injury against Michigan State, is still expected to start alongside Tariq Castro-Fields. But true freshmen Marquis Wilson and Keaton Ellis will likely factor in at some point, and this could be their toughest assignment so far this year.
Penn State RB Noah Cain and the running game
The Nittany Lions’ rushing offense hasn’t exactly been dominant this season. For one, Football Outsiders ranks the PSU offensive line as No. 94 nationally in run-blocking, or line yards per carry. And, two, the unit ranks No. 61 nationally in rushing offense.
Depending on one running back’s health, however, those numbers could look a little different.
True freshman RB Noah Cain has demonstrated he’s the top back in the Nittany Lions’ four-RB rotation. Take away every back’s longest run, and Mr. Consistency averages nearly a half-yard more per carry than any other Nittany Lion. (To date, Cain is the only back to gain more than 55 rushing yards against Iowa — and he finished with 102 yards.) He can wear down a defense, grind out the tough yards and run the clock out at the end.
There’s just one small problem: After earning his first career start against Michigan State on Oct. 25, he suffered a lower-body injury and did not return to the game. James Franklin did not offer specifics Tuesday when asked about Cain, but the head coach did say he “expected” the freshman to play Saturday.
Is he 100 percent? Franklin didn’t say, and it’s unknown whether Cain will be in line for another start. If he is, he’s worth watching, and he should help Penn State with its time of possession. If he can’t go, or if he’s limited, then Journey Brown will likely resume starter duties, with Devyn Ford and Ricky Slade rotating in.
The matchup against Minnesota isn’t new. The Golden Gophers are ranked No. 26 nationally in run defense — but that still makes Minnesota the fifth-best run defense the Nittany Lions have gone against so far this season. (Buffalo is ranked No. 6, Iowa No. 8, Michigan No. 19 and Michigan State No. 25.)
That being said, Penn State hasn’t exactly dominated those other matchups. It averaged 3.3 yards per carry against Buffalo, Iowa and Michigan State — and 4.3 yards vs. Michigan. Without Cain, it won’t get any easier Saturday.
Whether Cain is 100 percent, who starts and how Brown sets the tone if Cain can’t go should reveal a lot early about the Penn State rushing attack.
Biggest player in college football
Sure, there are plenty of talented players to watch. Penn State sophomore DT PJ Mustipher will start with the suspension of DT Antonio Shelton, LB Micah Parsons is a national force, and Minnesota DL Carter Coughlin will be playing on Sundays. (And we’ve already mentioned plenty of other stars already.) But Minnesota OL Daniel Faalele is one-of-a-kind.
The sophomore right tackle, out of Australia, stands at 6-foot-9 and 400 pounds. Four-hundred pounds.
“It’s like the bearded lady,” Minnesota coach PJ Fleck told CBS Sports. “It’s like, wow, you’re going to pay to see her.”
That’s not to say Faalele is simply a sideshow. OL coach Brian Callahan said the 400-pound athlete with the size-18 shoes is “as good as I’ve been around.” And Penn State won’t see another offensive lineman quite like this.
In fact, this entire offensive line is unique for its sheer size. Only center Conner Olson (305 pounds) weighs less than 325. So, combined, Minnesota’s starting offensive line weighs in at 1,700 pounds — meaning the average Minnesota lineman weighs about 17 pounds more than Penn State’s.
“They have the biggest offensive line I think in the country — college, including the NFL,” Franklin said.
Penn State’s speed could be a problem for Minnesota. Then again, the Gophers’ size could be an issue for PSU. That’s what makes the matchup in the trenches, especially Faalele, worth keeping an eye on.