Despite loss, Gophers praised for defense

by Murali Balaji

After last season’s 16-15 win over the Gophers, Penn State football coach Joe Paterno was almost sorry that his team won — and even walked into the Minnesota locker room to say so.
This year, he sounded ready to send Gophers coach Glen Mason a bouquet of flowers as condolences for his team’s 27-17 victory over Minnesota.
“Minnesota has truly impressed me,” Paterno said in his post-game news conference. “They are just a solid ball club. Purdue kind of picked them apart last week, but they just had one of those games.”
The Penn State players applauded the overall effort of the Gophers’ defensive unit, which did its best to keep the team in the game until the fourth quarter.
Fullback Aaron Harris, whose 3-yard touchdown run put the Lions ahead 16-0 in the first half, said the Gophers defense responded to the pressure and put the clamps on the Lions as the game wore on.
“They’re a very good defensive unit,” Harris said. “They’re really underrated, and I think (safety Tyrone) Carter is a very good ball player.”
But the Lions might have been a little generous in handing out their praises. By Paterno’s own admission, Penn State is not the offensive team it’s been in the past, and the Gophers’ success was more indicative of the Lions’ inability to capitalize on great field position throughout much of the game.
“I think we had a good flow offensively today, but there are definitely things we need to work on,” said quarterback Kevin Thompson, who passed for a career-high 246 yards against the Gophers.
One of them may involve throwing the ball more. Penn State’s philosophy of playing smash-mouth, run-first football works only when the team has a workhorse back — like Curtis Enis or Ki-Jana Carter, for example. Running back Cordell Mitchell has been steady, but yesterday’s effort (19 carries, 76 yards) was an example of how the Lions ground game hasn’t functioned as well as in the past.
Give the Gophers defense credit for forcing Thompson to beat them with the pass. Penn State’s predictable offensive set played right into the Gophers’ predictable defensive alignment, and both Carter and linebacker Parc Williams stepped up when the unit needed to stop Penn State in short-yardage situations.
However, the Lions followed Purdue’s lead to break the Gophers’ backs: They beat them with the deep ball. Receiver Corey Jones’ 65-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter essentially put the game out of reach.
“They played a lot of three-deep coverage,” Jones said. “We thought we could attack and make the deep safety bite.”
Paterno said that the Gophers’ pressure defense essentially made Penn State resort to a more wide-open passing game.
“They make you do it, you got to do it,” he said. “But you got to hit them (with the deep pass).”
Offensively, the Gophers proved that quarterback might be the least of their problems. A complete overhaul may be in order.
Quarterback Andy Persby’s numbers (13 of 34, 113 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions) were deceiving. Making his first collegiate start, the sophomore had little or no time to throw the ball. It didn’t help that his offensive line couldn’t slow down the Lions’ pass rush.
“We felt if we kept pressuring, sooner or later, they were going to fold,” Penn State defensive end Brad Scioli said.
Lions linebacker Brandon Short spent most of the afternoon on top of Persby, recording four sacks. He said the plan was to rattle the Gophers’ young quarterback early and often.
“That was the plan, to get to the quarterback as much as possible,” Short said. “We knew we also had to contain their run game.”
Short, a top candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the week honors, can thank the Gophers’ offensive line for his success. Minnesota gave up a total of seven sacks.
Persby’s 34 attempts were indicative of the Gophers’ failed rushing attack against the Penn State defense. Running back Thomas Hamner, the featured back in the offense, had a whopping 11 carries for 41 yards. Minnesota as a whole gained only 90 yards.
Granted, there were some bright spots on the offensive side of the ball. Receiver Luke Leverson continued his ascendence into the upper-echelon of the Big Ten’s receiving class with an eight-catch, two-touchdown performance.
The question is whether that will be enough to even make a dent against No. 1 ranked Ohio State, which the Gophers face this week.