Penn State Falls to Minnesota on the Road
MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. — The No. 4 Penn State Nittany Lions suffered their first loss of the season Saturday, falling to the No. 17 Minnesota Golden Gophers 31-26.
Minnesota, led by head coach P.J. Fleck, joined Penn State as one of the final seven undefeated teams in college football heading into Saturday. The Golden Gophers, howeverm had played one of the weakest schedules in college football to this point and were looking to make a statement against a Nittany Lion squad sporting the second-best strength of record in the country.
Meanwhile, Penn State had begun to turn the tides to its road woes under coach James Franklin, who picked up his first win against a ranked opponent on the road earlier this season against Iowa. Penn State’s formula against the Hawkeyes last month included playing mistake-free football on offense and shutting down the opposition with its defense, two things the Nittany Lions failed to do against the Golden Gophers.
Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford targeted wide receiver Justin Shorter twice in the first three plays of the game. The first target was dropped, while the second was intercepted deep down the field by Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. It was the beginning of a forgetful day for both Shorter and Clifford.
The Golden Gophers proceeded to go right down the field, with quarterback Tanner Morgan finding wide receiver Rashod Bateman for a 66-yard touchdown, giving Minnesota an early 7-0 lead. It was the first opening quarter touchdown given up by the Nittany Lion defense all season.
Penn State would respond with a 45-yard touchdown run from Journey Brown. This was the first of two touchdown runs for Brown, who filled in well for an injured Noah Cain. Cain dressed, but did not take any snaps in Saturday’s action.
Despite the Nittany Lions’ quick initial response, Morgan continued to carve up the Penn State secondary. His second first half touchdown pass went to Chris Autman-Bell, and Minnesota regained its touchdown lead.
Penn State drove down the field with much success in the first half but coming away with touchdowns was a consistent struggle. Jake Pinegar made a 33-yard field goal to cut the deficit to four. On the next drive into the opposition’s territory, another underthrown ball by Clifford resulted in another Winfield Jr. interception, his seventh of the season to lead the FBS.
The Golden Gophers cashed in on the interception, as Tanner Morgan passed to Tyler Johnson for a 38-yard touchdown. This was Morgan’s third touchdown pass of the first half, extending the Minnesota lead to 21-10. Fourteen of those points coming directly off Nittany Lion turnovers.
The teams exchanged field goals before heading to the locker room, with the Golden Gophers up 24-13. This was the most points given up by the Penn State defense in a game all season.
“We started poorly,” Franklin said. “In the first half, we had interceptions, we had blown coverages, we had missed tackles. We did not play well in the first half.”
In the second half, the Penn State defense came out far more disciplined. After forcing a punt on Minnesota’s first possession, Keeton Ellis forced a Golden Gophers fumble, recovered by Shaka Toney. This set the Nittany Lions up with a short field, resulting in a Clifford touchdown pass to Nick Bowers, only cutting the Minnesota lead to 24-19 with a missed two-point attempt on a unique play call to Ricky Slade.
“It made sense to go for it,” Franklin said. “We checked the book. I talked to the offensive coaches. I talked to the defensive coaches. We all agreed.”
Although the Nittany Lions defense played well in the second half, the constant thorn in their side was Bateman, who ended the afternoon with seven receptions for 203 yards and a touchdown catch, including a 36-yard reception on third down, giving Minnesota a first and goal to start the fourth quarter. Backup quarterback Seth Green punched it in from a yard out, and the Golden Gophers went up 31-19.
Penn State’s offense was once again able to drive the length of the field but was stopped on the Minnesota fifth yard line, another missed red zone opportunity.
“We did enough in the second half to have a chance to win the game, but weren’t able to finish in the red zone,” Franklin said.
It became a one-score game when Brown capped off a Nittany Lion drive with a six-yard touchdown run to make the score 31-26. After forcing a three-and-out, Penn State was given an opportunity to go and take its first lead of the game, getting the ball back with 2:51 remaining.
The Nittany Lions traveled as far as the Minnesota 10-yard line before the drive stalled. An offensive pass interference call on Daniel George forced Penn State into a precarious situation, where Clifford fired his third interception of the game, matching his total from the previous eight contests, in the end zone to ice the result.
“They [the players and coaches] give their blood, sweat and tears to this university, to this community and to this program,” Franklin said. “We need to use this emotion and feeling as fuel moving forward.”
Penn State drops to 8-1 on the season, and 5-1 in Big Ten play. The Nittany Lions will host the 7-2 Indiana Hoosiers next Saturday at Beaver Stadium.
Andre Magaro is a sophomore majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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