PSU poses problems for Gophers

Murali Balaji

Although the Gophers football team got off to a 3-0 start, showing more than a few flashes of a turnaround from years of subpar performances, coach Glen Mason stopped short of predicting big things from Minnesota.
“Let’s be honest, Houston and Arkansas State and Memphis aren’t the best teams we’re going to face this season,” Mason said. “As the schedule progresses, the talent level of the teams we play is going to progress.”
That will surely be the case Saturday when Penn State comes to the Metrodome for a 2:30 p.m. game. The Lions are ranked No. 13 in the country and figure to pound on Minnesota. Here’s a look at the Gophers’ options on both sides of the ball.
Minnesota on offense
The Gophers are not going to beat anyone with their passing game this season, so the onus of the workload will go the running game.
It was surprising to see that the team began to phase out their ground game early in the second half against Purdue, but then again, the game was already out of reach. Running back Thomas Hamner said he expects to see the ball a lot more than he did last week, which means that the Gophers intend to attack the Penn State’s quick, upfield defense with their running game.
The Gophers’ offensive line is not very good, and expecting them to take on Lions defensive linemen Imani Bell, Courtney Brown and Brad Scioli may be asking too much. With this in mind, Hamner is going to get a lot of plays going to the outside, a chance for him to utilize his speed along the sidelines. The Lions’ secondary is underrated but small, meaning that Hamner could break some long runs once he gets past the front seven of Penn State.
If the ground game is effective, things could open up for the aerial attack, giving Luke Leverson and Ron Johnson the opportunity to use their size to the Gophers’ advantage. To neutralize the pass rush and take heat off quarterback Andy Persby, the offense might use sweeps and counter runs much more.
Coach Glen Mason must be willing to take gambles against this defense in order to produce big plays; the Nittany Lions’ aggressiveness and willingness to blitz often works against them, as Ohio State showed last week.
Minnesota is eons below the Buckeyes in talent and firepower, but there could be several long gains from the passing game if the Gophers can keep the Penn State defense wary of the run. Look for Johnson (6-foot-3) to be used in isolation against CB David Macklin (5-foot-8). If Persby can get the ball out of the pocket more quickly than Billy Cockerham, the team could actually surpass the 200-yard plateau passing this week, a milestone indicative of their ineffective passing game.
KEY MATCHUP: Hamner vs. the Lions’ front seven.
Hamner had one of his best career performances (32 carries, 154 yards) against Penn State last year, and he will once again be the key to the Gophers’ offensive success. The Lions’ front line and linebacking corps features several all-Big Ten performers, including linebackers Brandon Short and LaVarr Arrington, and tackle Bell. Hamner could get the ball 25-30 times this game.
Minnesota on defense
Note to defensive coordinator David Gibbs: Please don’t blitz, or Penn State will make you pay — dearly.
The Lions don’t boast the most formidable offense in the Big Ten, but they have enough talent at the skill positions to keep defenses honest. Receiver Chafie Fields is one of the fastest players in the nation, with 4.2 speed in the 40-yard dash and outstanding open-field fluidity. Fullback Aaron Harris seems fully recovered after last season’s torn anterior cruciate ligament (suffered against Minnesota), and is probably the conference’s best fullback. Running back Cordell Mitchell is good, but a lot of his early season success came against teams that were atrocious against the run.
The Gophers have been remarkably stubborn in sticking to their game plan of blitzing and playing man-to-man, and Mason said a change from that philosophy won’t come soon — not necessarily a good idea in a conference whose teams are rarely hesitant to throw up the long ball to big and fast receivers.
For the Gophers to be successful, the team must deploy more zone coverage schemes to contain screen passes and outside runs. Gophers’ cornerbacks Craig Scruggs and Trevis Graham cannot let the Penn State receivers get behind them in coverage, or — well, check Drew Brees’s stats from last Saturday.
Linebackers Parc Williams, Ben Mezera and Sean Hoffman are not very fast, so keeping them a few yards away from the line could allow them to patrol the underneath zones much more effectively than they have throughout this season. However, it all starts up front, and the Gophers’ defensive line has got to step up and produce if the team has any chance of winning this weekend.
KEY MATCHUP: Gophers’ defensive line vs. Penn State QB Kevin Thompson.
The Minnesota front four has generated an almost invisible pass rush thus far, and the Gophers’ reliance on the blitz has a lot to do with the fact that the defensive linemen have been unable to get to the quarterback. This week they have to pressure Thompson, who has struggled in his first few games as a starter. Penn State head coach Joe Paterno will not hesitate to put in Rasard Casey if Thompson falters. Gophers’ defensive end Curtese Poole has plenty of outside speed, and he’ll need it when he faces off against 6-foot-5, 335-pound tackle Floyd Wedderburn. The Gophers line must be persistent and aggressive in order to get to Thompson; if they can’t, then the junior quarterback will have plenty of time to dissect the less-than-imposing Gophers secondary.