In Week 11’s other conference game between undefeated top-25 teams, No. 17 Minnesota made a major statement with a 31-26 win over No. 4 Penn State, giving the Gophers their best win of the season and bringing them one step closer to the Big Ten Championship.
Here are five takeaways from the game.
It’s time to start talking Minnesota for real
With all due respect to Minnesota, its No. 17 ranking in the first College Football Playoff rankings despite an 8-0 start was defensible. Entering Week 11, the Gophers had beaten three of the bottom four teams in the Big Ten West and the bottom two teams in the Big Ten East (Rutgers and Maryland), while their three non-conference wins were late wins over South Dakota State (FCS), Fresno State in double overtime and Georgia Southern.
Even though the computer numbers really liked Minnesota (No. 10 in SP+ after Week 10), it was fair to be a little skeptical of the Gophers given their shaky non-conference performances and the series of wins over bad Big Ten teams, almost all of whom played backup quarterbacks.
But with a win over previously unbeaten, No. 4 Penn State, it’s time Minnesota deserves national respect.
Minnesota won’t assume the Nittany Lions’ No. 4 ranking in the CFP rankings. Heck, they may not even crack the top 10. But the Gophers have a two-game lead in the Big Ten West with three games to go and it’s time we consider the possibility that they enter the Big Ten Championship with one loss or an undefeated record, which means they’d be a potential playoff contender if they could pull off a hypothetical upset against No. 1 Ohio State. With two more regular season games against top-20 teams, Minnesota has the ability to improve its resume and potentially climb to the No. 7 to No. 10 range if it finishes 12-0.
Let’s talk about James Franklin’s game management
After Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford found tight end Nick Bowers for a touchdown with 4:05 left in the third quarter, cutting Minnesota’s lead to 24-19, Penn State Coach James Franklin elected to go for two.
The conversion attempt failed, leaving the Nittany Lions trailing by five points. At risk of second-guessing Franklin by playing the results, it was fairly early in a close game for him to go for two.
On Penn State’s next drive – after Minnesota scored to make it 31-19 – the Nittany Lions’ drive stalled out at the Minnesota 5-yard line after Clifford’s fourth-down throw to KJ Hamler in the back corner was batted away.
It’s also fair to wonder why Penn State was throwing fade routes to a 5-9 receiver at a critical juncture – the Nittany Lions tried it again, this time in the back left corner, later in the game on 2nd & 2.
If Penn State had simply kicked the PAT after it scored to make the score 24-19, the Nittany Lions would’ve trailed 31-20 after Minnesota’s next touchdown. On the drive that ended with Minnesota’s goal line stand against Penn State, Franklin could’ve kicked a chip-shot field goal to try to make it 31-23, which still kept the Nittany Lions within one possession of the Gophers.
Penn State was able to climb back 31-26 and on its final drive of the game – one that ended in an interception by Clifford – the Nittany Lions got to Minnesota’s 10-yard line, so if Penn State had taken the points earlier in the half (both the PAT rather than the two-point conversion and a short field goal rather than a fourth-down attempt for a touchdown), the Nittany Lions could’ve potentially kicked an easy go-ahead field goal late in the fourth quarter and left Minnesota with little time to try to produce its own game-winning scoring drive.
Clifford’s interceptions prove costly
Penn State actually out-gained Minnesota 518 total yards to 460 and Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford threw for one more yard than Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan (340 to 339), so the Nittany Lions were able to move the ball on the Gophers’ defense, but Clifford threw three interceptions deep in Minnesota territory, doubling his season total. The picks gave the Gophers the ball at their 5-yard line, 39-yard line (picked off at Minnesota’s six-yard line) and 20-yard line (picked off in the end zone), so with better ball security, Penn State could’ve potentially won this game by two scores.
Clifford underthrew tight end Pat Freiermuth on what could’ve been a potential touchdown in the first half and all too many of his pass attempts were a yard or two short, or four or five yards too long.
In fact, some of the best touch he showed on throws were short-to-intermediate throws on the run when he was out of the pocket. Despite throwing for 340 yards, Clifford averaged just 7.9 yards per attempt and now in his last four games, he has completed 53.4 percent, 56.3 percent, 56.0 percent and 50.0 percent of his passes, respectively.
Former Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley was the heart and soul of the program, and in his first year as a starter, Clifford showed that he still has significant room to improve for the Nittany Lions to live up to the ceiling of the No. 4 ranking they earned last Tuesday.
Minnesota’s wide receiver duo deserves more recognition
The biggest game of Week 11 – No. 2 LSU at No. 3 Alabama – featured two of the best, if not the two best, wide receiver corps in the country. Minnesota’s duo of Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson – plus you can throw in Chris Autman-Bell if you’re looking to make this a trio for the sake of comparison to Alabama, LSU or any other team’s top three receivers – had monster games against Penn State.
Bateman had seven catches for 203 yards and a touchdown, including the first touchdown of the game on a blown coverage by the Nittany Lions following a corner blitz, while Johnson also had seven receptions for 104 yards and a score. Even Autman-Bell weaved his way through Penn State’s defense for a 21-yard touchdown after a wide receiver screen.
Bateman and Johnson entered the game with very similar statistics – 31 catches for 644 yards and six touchdowns, and 43 catches for 626 yards and seven touchdowns, respectively – so the Gophers arguably have two No. 1 receivers, in addition to a three-headed rushing attack.
Another top-10 Ohio State opponent loses before Columbus
It might be unfair to say that the Week 13 matchup between Ohio State and Penn State doesn’t mean as much now, because if Penn State wins out, it’d clinch the Big Ten East and it would certainly be a playoff contender as a potential 12-1 Big Ten champion. But somewhat similar to Wisconsin losing at Illinois the week before the Badgers traveled to Columbus, some of the luster of a top-10 matchup in the Big Ten was lost when another upcoming opponent for Ohio State lost shortly before playing the Buckeyes.
On the other hand, Minnesota’s win increased the Gophers’ profile and a hypothetical conference champion game between 12-0 teams would have a ton of intrigue.