Gophers bowl past Penn State

Minnesota ran the ball effectively and made critical plays on defense.

Gophers players celebrate after beating Penn State 24-10 on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. It was the fourth straight Big Ten win for Minnesota.

Amanda Snyder

Gophers players celebrate after beating Penn State 24-10 on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. It was the fourth straight Big Ten win for Minnesota.

Dane Mizutani

The University of Minnesota football team hadn’t held the Governor’s Victory Bell trophy in so long that when players finally got their hands on the hardware Saturday, they didn’t know how to handle it.

A mob of players bolted to the opposing sidelines to take back the trophy for the first time since 2004 as the final seconds ticked away in the Gophers’ 24-10 win over Penn State University.

As the host of players hoisted the trophy in jubilation, they broke it.

“I think it kind of just fell apart when we all picked it up,” redshirt freshman Maxx Williams said with a laugh. “I think we were more worried just trying to keep it [together] so we could celebrate with it.”

And the team has reason to celebrate.

Minnesota has won four straight Big Ten games in a season for the first time since 1973. It sits at 8-2 this season and is on pace for its best finish since 2003.

The Gophers ranked No. 25 in the USA Today Coaches’ Poll on Sunday, but they were absent from the Associated Press Top 25.

The Gophers appear to be playing looser over the last four games, and junior running back David Cobb 

said the biggest difference is that the team is just having fun.

That was exemplified after Saturday’s win as head coach Jerry Kill hustled into the locker room, got to the center of his team’s huddle and busted out into dance.

“We certainly enjoyed the moment … and it was fun,” Kill said.

Kill was optimistic about his team at the start of the year, but about a month ago, eight wins seemed nearly impossible for the program.

Now, a Big Ten title is a possibility.

“I didn’t know if we could move this quick, but … that’s a credit to our staff and our players,” Kill said. “We needed to get our kids to believe that they were good football players and believe in themselves. And I think each week, the belief becomes better.”

Minnesota displayed that newfound confidence throughout the game against Penn State.

The Gophers were clutch in critical situations on offense and embodied the prototypical “bend-but-don’t-break” mentality on the defensive side of the ball.

Minnesota converted nine of 17 third downs in the game and was 3-for-3 on fourth downs. It had touchdown drives of 96, 70 and 74 yards and took a 24-10 lead late in the second quarter when sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson found Williams wide open on a wheel route down the left sideline.

“We felt … like we had more speed than them,” Nelson said of Minnesota’s offense. “If we could get them to take a wrong step or two, we [felt like we] could get some matchups outside.”

Nelson finished 15 of 24 for 186 yards with one touchdown through the air and one on the ground. He threw the ball 19 times in the first half, but Cobb shouldered the load after the break.

Cobb finished with 139 yards on 27 carries and ran for more than 100 yards for the fourth consecutive game. Cobb is now 58 yards away from becoming the first Gophers running back since Amir Pinnix to surpass 1,000 rushing yards.

“David Cobb might be our best defensive player if he keeps running the ball like that,” defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys joked after the win. “There’s no better defense than one that’s standing on the boundary watching the game.”

Cobb kept his defense off the field for chunks of time after halftime. But when the defense was on the field, it was tested by true freshman Christian Hackenberg.

The Penn State quarterback showed tremendous poise and had great pocket presence for a true freshman — but proved throughout the game he is still just a freshman.

Hackenberg led Penn State on a few sustained drives in the second half but seemed to stall any time his team got inside Minnesota’s 30-yard line.

“I think the biggest difference with this team is in those situations, we can fight back,” senior defensive back Brock Vereen said. “In previous years, we might have been likely to roll over.”

Vereen and sophomore cornerback Eric Murray worked together to shut down junior wide receiver Allen Robinson in the game. Robinson was an All-Big Ten selection last year and has emerged as one of the best wide receivers in the Big Ten this year. He had seven catches for 63 yards, but he never really made an impact.

Hackenberg was inaccurate on fourth downs all game and lost a crucial fumble at the 1-yard line with about six minutes left in the fourth quarter.

The Gophers took over at their own 2-yard line and used their strong running attack to run out the clock.

Minnesota has a bye this week and will face rival Wisconsin on Nov. 23 in what will be its toughest test this season. The Gophers haven’t won the battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe since 2003.

“We knew the talent that we had [at the start of the season],” Vereen said. “The physical tools were always there, [but] now that we’ve proven we have a different mindset … the sky’s the limit.”