The No. 17 Minnesota Golden Gophers (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) didn’t buckle under the pressure of playing the most anticipated home game in program history in decades, if not just generations. Minnesota improved to 9-0 for the first time since going 13-0 in 1904 with a 31-26 victory against No. 4 Penn State (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten).
PJ Fleck came to Minnesota with his Row the Boat mentality, and it continues to pay dividends. Minnesota was the more effective offense from start to finish as Penn State’s defense played its worst game of the season. Penn State’s receivers couldn’t hold on to passes when Sean Clifford was able to get a good pass off, but the Gophers secondary continued to do their part to make sure Penn State couldn’t find big plays through the air, as the Gophers have done all season. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, Tanner Morgan proved a connection with Rashod Bateman was one of the most reliable connections in the Big Ten, and Penn State couldn’t handle it. Bateman caught seven passes for 203 yards and a touchdown, with first downs on nearly all of his other receptions. Tyler Johnson also went for over 100 yards on seven receptions from Morgan, who ended his day with three touchdowns.
Minnesota’s touchdown drives were no fluke either. The Gophers scored two first-quarter touchdowns on a Penn State defense that had not allowed a first-quarter touchdown all season. Minnesota scored on drives of 95, 87, 61, and 75 yards, with two of those long touchdown drives coming off Penn State interceptions deep in the Minnesota end of the field. Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted Clifford twice inside the Minnesota 10-yard line (one on a deep pass over the middle of the opening drive of the game and the other when Penn State was near the red zone and about to kick a field goal at the very least).
After Penn State cut the Minnesota lead down to five points with a Journey Brown touchdown run in the fourth quarter, the defense had their best stop of the game, giving Penn State one last chance to steal the win. But Clifford was intercepted a third time, this time by Jordon Howden just inside the end zone.
The outcome of the game may not have a dramatic impact in how the Big Ten championship picture plays out, because Minnesota still would have had a lead in the division race and Penn State’s Big Ten East odds likely would still be determined by what happens in a few weeks at Ohio State had Penn State won this game, but there is no taking away from the importance of this game for both teams. For Minnesota, the Gophers are now one giant step closer to playing in their first Big Ten Championship Game. Minnesota will own a two-game lead on either Iowa or Wisconsin, depending on which team wins that head-to-head matchup this afternoon. Minnesota still has to play both Iowa and Wisconsin, but having a minimum of a two-game lead in the division race with just three games remaining is a wonderful spot for Fleck and his program to be sitting.
Penn State, fresh off their highest ranking in the CFB Playoff rankings, will take a fall out of the top four but will still get a chance to settle the division race with Ohio State in two weeks. A spot in the New Years Six lineup still remains a likely destination for the Nittany Lions, but there is some work to do in order to re-enter a playoff spot.
Penn State’s next game will be at home next week against Indiana. The Hoosiers, who will travel to Happy Valley with seven wins already this season (7-2), will be coming off a bye week.
Minnesota goes on the road next week to play at No. 18 Iowa. The Hawkeyes will be coming off a road game at Wisconsin, a critical game in the Big Ten West Division standings. Minnesota may be about to row their boats right on down to Indianapolis.