Penn State Vs Minnesota: The Big 10 Showdown Of The Year…So Far

Penn State Vs Minnesota: The Big 10 Showdown Of The Year…So Far

Gophers Vs Nittany Lions

This isn’t really the showdown of the season thus far. I was completely kidding. Although, this is a premier game, due to the potential shakeup in the Big 10 this could cause. Minnesota is undefeated in 2019 and ranked 17th in the country. In case you’re wondering why, it’s because they haven’t beaten anyone worth noting.

Meanwhile, Penn State has already had a few big wins and is looking to stay perfect, creeping ever closer to the November 23rd showcase against Ohio State. Coming off the bye, I think Penn State has had plenty of time to watch tape on the Minnesota RPO (Run-Pass Option) offense. Let’s take a look at Minnesota as a team.

Breaking down the Minnesota Gophers

The Golden Gophers operate offensively via the Run-Pass Option. Under this style, the running back will set up right next to the quarterback. Following the snap, the QB will read the linebackers and the edges and will either hand it off or throw. With this offense, it typically freezes the blitzers and gives the receivers time to get out of their breaks. If run with discipline, it can be a very effective strategy. If run well, it can dominate at any level, like what we saw a couple years ago with the Eagles in the Super Bowl.

So far this season, it has been tremendously effective for the Golden Gophers as quarterback Tanner Morgan has posted 18 touchdowns to 4 interceptions. Morgan isn’t a very proficient thrower, by conventional standards, but the RPO schemes have gotten the best of many opposing defenses this season and Morgan has taken advantage of plenty of blown coverages.

Running back, Rodney Smith, has seven touchdowns and nearly 900 yards rushing this year and is averaging 5.8 yards per carry. There’s no doubt Smith is a solid back, but where I have doubts is their level of competition. Over his college career (five seasons), Smith is averaging closer to 4.9 yards per carry, so even if the line or offensive scheme has improved, the fact he’s a full yard better indicates he’s yet to face a good rush defense.

On the outside, Rashod Bateman is the clear top target for Morgan. Bateman is on the larger end of the spectrum at 6’2 but doesn’t have elite speed or elite traits at the position. From an overall talent standpoint, Minnesota is probably somewhere closer to a team like Iowa, though I think Iowa is more talented across the board.

There are a few key areas the Nittany Lions will need to focus on this week if they expect to keep their unbeaten campaign going.

Blow up the RPO

The entire Golden Gopher offense operates through the RPO. There’s a lot of wrinkles to it, but the jest of it is, if a defense can get penetration at the line, it should disrupt the play enough to severely limit the quarterback’s options. If a defense plays along and freezes on the running back, it’s going to increase the options for the quarterback, plus allow him time to let his receivers’ routes develop.

One simple solution to this is isolating the outside receivers in man coverage, swinging the edge rushers outside, spying the running back with a safety or linebacker close to the line, and blitzing hard up the middle with linebackers.

Minnesota has found success on the edges this season in the RPO when the defense commits to attacking the middle, so the edge defenders either need to swing outside, or they should collapse inside and let the linebackers roll to whichever side the RPO is aligned. Penn State is too athletic to be beaten on the backside of an RPO if the runner decides to traverse field. By attacking the RPO, they’ll be able to force the QB’s hand early by either blowing up the play in the backfield for a nice tackle for loss, or they can limit the depth of target on receivers by forcing quick, dangerous passes from Morgan.

Even when Morgan has made deeper throws, it’s hard to tell if his receivers aren’t running deep hook routes sometimes because it looks like he’s under-throwing them, often. It’s hard to tell if this is by design or just a safe throw, but I have my doubts with Morgan’s accuracy downfield.

Attack the Gophers on the ground, finish them with play action

Throughout the 2019 season, there’s one glaring stat that stands out for Minnesota. Minnesota has allowed 116 yards on the ground, per game in 2019. We know Penn State loves to utilize multiple backs and establish the run on their opponents. With the Gophers sporting a strong pass defense, it’s going to be critical for Penn State to either have success on the ground or at the very least, force Minnesota to commit to stopping the run, so play action can be more effective.

Too many people underestimate the effectiveness of play action. I’m sure coach Franklin understands that’s what his team needs to do in order to escape with a victory.

Prediction has this game at 48 total points and Penn State as a 6.5 favorite. I think Minnesota’s RPOs will give Penn State problems at times, but I like the advantage Penn State should have running the ball on offense. I think Penn State wins in a relatively comfortable fashion, though I expect a late push from Minnesota to make it close but ultimately fall short.

Final Score: Penn State 27 Minnesota 20