Daily Breakdown: Minnesota will have an uphill battle against Penn State

Running back Rodney Smith is tackled while playing against Colorado State on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Chris Dang

Running back Rodney Smith is tackled while playing against Colorado State on Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Mike Hendrickson

Minnesota’s first conference game of the year
will be at Penn State, and it’s going to be a tough one. A full breakdown,
prediction, and other notes can be found below: 

When Minnesota runs the ball:

Minnesota’s running
game continued their hot start to the season with another stellar outing
against Colorado State. The Gophers rushed for over 240 yards for the second
straight time and scored all four of their touchdowns on the ground. All three
of their main running backs, Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, and Kobe McCrary are
healthy and quarterback Mitch Leidner has been effective on the read option.

Penn State’s
rushing defense has been bottom-tier this year – 105th in the FBS – which has a
lot to do with health. Three starters and one backup among the Nittany Lions’
linebackers have been hit with significant injuries and will all miss the game
against Minnesota.

This would be an
interesting matchup if Penn State had a healthy group, but they don’t. The
Gophers could have a big day on the ground.

Matchup to watch: RB
Shannon Brooks vs. LB Brandon Smith 

Advantage: Minnesota

When Penn State runs the ball:

Penn State has the
best running back in the Big Ten, but he hasn’t performed like it. Saquon
Barkley was third in the Big Ten in rushing yards last season but the sophomore
has gotten off to a slow start as he is only averaging 79.3 yards a game.
However, Barkley is also known for being a talented receiver and is second in
the Big Ten with receiving yards among running backs, so he has made up for
some of his shortcomings on the ground game.

Minnesota’s rushing
defense has been good at times this year. The Gophers have still only allowed
two rushing touchdowns and are 34th in the FBS in running defense. The Gophers
have seen some solid play from their defensive line, specifically Steven
Richardson and Hank Ekpe.

The matchup is a
close one, but Minnesota edges out Barkley and Penn State here. Barkley is a
talented running back, but it’ll be hard for him to break out against
Minnesota.

Matchup to watch:
RB Saquon Barkley vs. DT Steven Richardson

Advantage: Minnesota

When Minnesota passes the ball:

Minnesota’s passing
offense has been OK this season, and is 48th in the FBS in quarterback rating.
Leidner has started strong, but a lot of his nice numbers came from the Indiana
State game, where he threw his only four touchdowns of the season. His favorite
receiver Drew Wolitarsky is fourth in the Big Ten in receiving yards and
remains Leidner’s only significant target.

Penn State hasn’t
faced great passing offenses this year. All of their opponents, minus No. 4
Michigan, are in the bottom half of the FBS in quarterback rating (Temple, Kent
State, Pittsburgh). That doesn’t mean the Nittany Lions haven’t impressed. They’ve limited opposing quarterbacks to 173.8 yards a game – 19th in the FBS –
and have four interceptions. Free safety Marcus Allen is off to a good start
and his supporting defensive backs have also played well.

The Nittany Lions were
third in the Big Ten in passing defense last year and are second this season. This
could be Leidner’s toughest game.

Matchup to watch: WR
Drew Wolitarsky vs. CB John Reid 

Advantage: Penn
State 

When Penn State passes the ball:

Penn State doesn’t
have Christian Hackenberg anymore – their starter for 38 games at quarterback the
past three seasons – but they have seemed to adjust to life without him.
Redshirt sophomore Trace McSorely is their new guy under center and has done
well. He has five touchdowns to three interceptions and showed improvement
before No. 4 Michigan. The Nittany Lions also have four receivers in the Big
Ten top-30 leaderboard (Minnesota has one).

Minnesota’s passing
defense has had a rough start to the 2016 season. They’ve given up eight
touchdowns to only one interception in three games this year and are
second-to-last in the Big Ten in passing defense.

The Gophers’
secondary will probably get better as there is nowhere to go but up, but it
probably won’t start this game.

Matchup to watch: WR
Chris Godwin vs. CB Jalen Myrick

Advantage: Penn
State

Prediction:

Penn State 31, Minnesota
21.

Minnesota won’t be
at home anymore and this is a tough matchup to open the Big Ten. Penn State
will send the Gophers back to Minneapolis with their first loss of the year. 

Prediction record: 3-0

Around the web on the Gophers and the Nittany Lions:

1. Penn State doesn’t get to decide JoePa’s legacy: I know

-This was a
powerful read by The Undefeated’s Mike Wise on Penn State’s decision to honor
Joe Paterno and Wise’s experience as a survivor of child sexual abuse. A lot of
people have written about Paterno’s legacy, and this first-person column was
among the best.

2. Matt Limegrover’s Nittany Lions line awaits Gophers in Penn State

-Gophers head coach
Tracy Claeys fired former offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover shortly after
the conclusion of Minnesota’s 2015 regular season. Marcus Fuller of the Star
Tribune got quotes from Penn State’s head coach James Franklin and former
Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill about how Limegrover landed on his feet as an
offensive line coach for the Nittany Lions.

3. Joe Moorhead going to bring tempo and a spread offense to Penn State football

-An article by the
Daily Collegian’s Andrew Rubin on Penn State’s new offensive coordinator Joe
Moorhead. It’s an informative piece on Moorhead’s plan for the Nittany Lions’
new spread offense, his past success with it at Fordham, and how he is going to
use Penn State’s skill position players.

4. Gophers’ kicker, former punter got a leg up as neighbors

-Who knew that
kicker Emmit Carpenter and former Gophers punter Peter Mortell were neighbors
back in Green Bay, Wisc. growing up? The Pioneer Press’ Andy Greder spoke with
the two of them, how they both ended up at Minnesota and Carpenter’s success
this year.

5. Meet Joey Julius: The hardest-hitting kicker in college football

-Penn State has a kicker
who is listed as 5 feet 10 inches and weighs 258 pounds. His name is Joey
Julius and he has some of the hardest hits in the FBS this year. ESPN’s Josh
Moyer did a story on him and has quotes from his victims.

Three takes: 

1. It’s Drew Wolitarsky and the rest

-Drew Wolitarsky
has the most receptions on the team by nine and the most receiving yards by 168.
Leidner has done a good job spreading out the ball this season, throwing the
ball to 12 different receivers this year already, but Wolitarsky is clearly the
only one who has been able to separate himself from the pack. It’ll be a big
help to Leidner once tight end Brandon Lingen and wide receiver Rashad Still
return from injury, as they were two of his favorite targets from last year.

2. The Gophers’ next three games will be a lot
harder than the previous three

-Starting with Penn
State, Minnesota’s schedule gets very tough. The Gophers play Penn State on the
road, the Big Ten runner-up, Iowa, and an improved Maryland on the road. Minnesota
is a good team this year that looks like they’ll be able to get seven wins, but
they may not do it against those three teams. Games against Rutgers, Illinois
and Purdue are ones the Gophers should win.

3. Jonah Pirsig is the offensive line’s standout

-The offensive line
has been a lot better than last year, but the one leading the crew has been
right tackle Jonah Pirsig. The junior college transfers and left guard Connor
Mayes all seem to be doing just fine, but Pirsig is the one who leads in the knockdown cup (pre-Colorado State game) and has been a great
constant for the Gophers at that spot.

The Minnesota Daily’s coverage of the team
from this past week:
 

1. Richardson improves to elite level

-Steven Richardson
has been dominant this season. An analyst from Pro Football Focus, Gophers
coaches and Richardson explain why.

2. Brooks impresses in first game back after injury

-Shannon Brooks had
his first game of the season against Colorado State and he made it a good one.
Brooks and others talk about what he did well and how his foot looks after
surgery in August.

3. Q&A: Steve Palazzolo of Pro Football Focus on quarterback Mitch Leidner

-Leidner has started
the season strong, but how much of that should be attributed to the easy
schedule and what can he still work on? Pro Football Focus senior analyst Steve
Palazzolo spoke with the Minnesota Daily about Leidner’s level of play, and
where his NFL chances stand as of now.

4. Questions from the Other Side: Penn State football beat writer Andrew Rubin

-For this week’s
Questions from the Other Side, the Minnesota Daily spoke with Andrew Rubin, the
Penn State football writer for the Daily Collegian, who provided analysis, his
pick to win the Big Ten and a score prediction for the game Saturday.

5. Gophers begin conference play at Penn State

-Comments from
Leidner, Claeys, tight end Nate Wozniak, and linebacker Jonathan Celestin on
what the team is doing to prepare for the tough atmosphere that Beaver Stadium
presents.

6. Defensive line steps up

-Story from the
game on Saturday about Minnesota’s defensive line.

7. Minnesota remains undefeated with 31-24 win over Colorado State

– Minnesota-Colorado State game recap from Saturday.

Everything else you need to know:

Start time: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 2:30 p.m.
CST

Network: Big Ten
Network

Radio: KFAN 100.3
FM

Line: Penn State by 2.5

Minnesota depth chart

Penn State depth chart