No. 17 Minnesota set for biggie vs. No. 4 Penn State

Field Level Media

November 06, 2019 at 2:56 am.

The No. 17 Minnesota Gophers will be looking to continue their remarkable season in the biggest game they have played in November in a long time.

Minnesota (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) hosts No. 4 Penn State (8-0, 5-0) at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Saturday.

The game against Penn State is the first of three remaining big tests for Minnesota as it attempts to get to the Big Ten title game for the first time since the inception of the December contest in 2011. The Gophers still must travel to No. 18 Iowa and eventually close the season at home against No. 13 Wisconsin.

The talk this week mostly involves the Penn State game, but head coach P.J. Fleck also made news Tuesday, when he agreed to a new seven-year contract that takes him through the 2026 season and increases his salary from $3.6 million this season to $4.6 million in 2020.

That likely takes him off the board for other major college openings, at least until his $10 million buyout goes down after Dec. 31, 2020.

“We love the Twin Cities area. We love Minnesota. We’re Midwestern people,” he said, according to the Minnesota Star Tribune. “We’ve absolutely loved how the community has welcomed us with open arms.”

Fleck is 50-35 in his seventh season as a head coach, which includes four years at Western Michigan.

Minnesota is 8-0 for the first time since 1941 and has outscored its last four foes — Illinois, Nebraska, Rutgers and Maryland — by a 168-41 gap.

Penn State, which joined the conference in 1993, will try to win the Governor’s Victory Bell — the trophy honoring the Nittany Lions’ first Big Ten game, which came against Minnesota — for the 10th time in 15 meetings. The teams last played in 2016.

Minnesota has been stingy on defense lately, having held opponents to 17 points or fewer in each of the past four games.

The Golden Gophers rank 13th nationally in total defense, allowing 283.8 yards per game. Of the top 20 schools in that category, eight are in the 14-team Big Ten, with Penn State ninth (280.0).

The most significant stat for either team surrounds the running game — Minnesota does it on offense, Penn State doesn’t allow it on defense.

The Gophers’ ground game comes in at No. 31 nationally, producing 204.5 yards per game with 21 touchdowns.

Senior running back Rodney Smith tops the squad with 889 yards and has 100-yard performances in each of his last five games, including 211 against Illinois on Oct. 5.

However, the Nittany Lions are second in stuffing the run, allowing just 68.4 yards per game, 1.99 per carry and five scores all season.

Nittany Lions coach James Franklin said he also is worried about Minnesota’s passing attack. Tanner Morgan has completed 65.3 percent of his 173 passes for 1,761 yards, with 18 touchdowns and four interceptions.

“I think this is the best wide receivers that we have faced this year,” Franklin said. “But I’d also make the argument, I don’t know if they have seen defensive backs or pass rush like we have been.”

Many had circled Penn State’s recent rough three-game stretch — at Iowa, home against Michigan and at Michigan State — as the moment that would ultimately define the team, and Franklin likes where his team is after a bye week.

“We had a really good bye week,” Franklin said, “but obviously we’ve got to have a great week of preparation this week so we can go play well Saturday.”