Mitch Leidner leads Minnesota into Beaver Stadium this weekend, looking to guide the Gophers to a 4-0 start to the season in their Big Ten opener. Penn State, of course, has already played a Big Ten game. It did not go very well last weekend at Michigan. Do the beleaguered Nittany Lions have enough in the tank to rebound this weekend on their home turf?
Minnesota at Penn State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 3:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Big Ten Network
Line: Penn State -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Blue-collar Minnesota hits the road for first time
Minnesota has jumped out to a nice little 3-0 start this season with wins against Oregon State and Colorado State, but this week the Golden Gophers hit the road for the first time this season. They do so visiting one of the bigger venues in the Big Ten with Penn State’s Beaver Stadium. The Gophers have prevailed so far this season with a true lunch-pail mentality. There is nothing particularly sexy about how Minnesota goes about its business, but this team has found a way to keep grinding and put away its opponents. It’s the kind of style that can wear down a beat-up Penn State defense and take control of things in the second half in a tight game.
2. Penn State’s defense has been roughed up in more ways than one
If there is one thing you have generally been able to count on Penn State doing well over the years, it has been the defense. That is not the case this season, as the first month of the season has proven. A defense that had to replace three NFL defensive linemen continues to find itself up front, while the signature linebacker position has been decimated by injuries this season. Brandon Bell did not make the trip to Michigan last week. Jason Cabinda did but did not play. Nyeem Wartman-White is out for the season with an injury. Last week Penn State lost walk-on Jan Johnson for the season. Minnesota should be able to take advantage there.
Injuries are part of the reason why Penn State’s defense ranks 12th in the Big Ten entering October. Penn State has been abused on the ground with an average of 213.75 rushing yards allowed per game this season. Pittsburgh and Michigan each rushed for 300 yards and combined for nine rushing touchdowns against the Nittany Lions.
3. Big Ten rushing TD leaders lead the way
Two of the Big Ten’s top rushing touchdown producers will be doing battle Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Penn State’s Saquon Barkley leads the Big Ten with six rushing touchdowns in four games this season. Just two of those scores have come at home, however (four came in a road game at Pitt in Week 2). Coming off a down performance against Michigan, look to see how Penn State gets him on track early against Minnesota.
Minnesota’s Rodney Smith, also a sophomore, is tied for second in the Big Ten with five rushing touchdowns (Wisconsin’s Corey Clement also has five). Smith rushed for 99 yards and two touchdowns last week in a win against Colorado State. He will look to score his first career rushing touchdown on the road this weekend.
If there is one spot where Penn State could potentially find an advantage against Minnesota, it may be through the air. Minnesota ranks 13th in the Big Ten in passing defense and has allowed eight touchdowns, with just one interception. Sophomore quarterback Trace McSorley continues to develop and experience some growing pains as a result, but Penn State will need him to get in a rhythm early against a pass defense that can be exposed. The only concern for that might be the weather. It is expected to be soggy this weekend in Happy Valley, which could make for a slippery football for passers and receivers, not to mention possible muddy conditions to slow things down.
Prediction: Penn State 26, Minnesota 24
— Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.