Minnesota delivers P.J. Fleck his signature win in victory over Penn State
Minnesota came to play on Saturday against Penn State. As a result, the Golden Gophers delivered head coach P.J. Fleck his signature win in Minneapolis.
The Gophers stood tall on a national stage in defeating the Nittany Lions, 31-26, when Jordan Howden intercepted a Sean Clifford pass with 1:39 remaining to stall a potential Penn State game-winning drive. The Gophers moved to 9-0 and delivered the Nittany Lions their first loss of the season in front of the first sellout crowd for the Gophers at home in four years.
Fleck’s desire to make Minnesota a B1G power is coming into fruition, and he’s done it steadily. He went 5-7 in his first season in Minneapolis, finishing sixth in the Big Ten West with just two conference wins. He led his team to the Quick Lane Bowl last season after a 7-6 mark, but what he has done in his third year is remarkable.
Minnesota fans can and should dream big after seeing their team claim its first win over a top-five team in 20 years. Fleck brought big-time football to Minnesota on Saturday afternoon.
Meanwhile, James Franklin’s Nittany Lions did not resemble the team that was ranked No. 4 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings that were released on Tuesday. Clifford was intercepted by Antoine Winfield Jr. on the first drive of the game, Rashod Bateman hauled in a 66-yard score on Minnesota’s ensuing possession, and it was a sign of things to come as Penn State trailed 24-13 at the half.
Penn State’s defense allowed 199 yards of total offense in the first quarter alone. The Nittany Lions were unable to get into the Minnesota backfield throughout the first 30 minutes, as Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan looked very comfortable and completed 10 of 12 passes for 240 yards with three touchdowns to three different receivers. He couldn’t have played any better, and the offense played a turnover-free first half. Morgan finished with 339 passing yards.
The 24 first-half points allowed by PSU were the most the team had given up in a game this season, topping the previous high of 21 against Michigan in Happy Valley.
The Nittany Lions finally created their own break at the 7:43 mark of the third quarter when Keaton Ellis forced a Shannon Brooks fumble, which was recovered by Shaka Toney at the 50-yard line. It was the first big play by the PSU defense. The offense marched 50 yards over nine plays and 3:38 and reached the end zone when Clifford hit Nick Bowers for 10 yards. The two-point conversion failed.
Defensively, the Nittany Lions really amped up the energy in the second half. But the play of the game for the Gophers may have been the final one of the third quarter.
Morgan connected with Bateman, who finished with the second-most receiving yards in a game in school history (203 yards), for 36 yards on third-and-9 at the PSU 40 to set up a first-and-goal at the 4. Minnesota’s strong 2019 goal-to-go offense continued to flourish as Seth Green tumbled into the end zone for a one-yard score to cap off an eight-play, 75-yard drive that spanned 4:54 to give the Gophers a 31-19 lead. The crucial play was the game’s biggest.
The Nittany Lions offense quickly marched down the field on the ensuing possession, but the Gophers defense stifled the effort. PSU could not find the end zone from first-and-goal at the 9, as Clifford’s pass on fourth down to KJ Hamler fell incomplete. The defensive stand was huge for a unit that intercepted Clifford three times on the day.
Penn State showed its resiliency on both sides of the ball throughout the second half. The Nittany Lions cut the deficit to 31-26 after an eight-play, 63-yard drive was capped off by a Journey Brown 6-yard scoring run. They would get the ball back, but the drive stalled with the Howden interception.
Clifford struggled throughout, going just 23 of 43 through the air for 340 yards and a score after coming into the game leading the Big Ten in total offense and throwing just three interceptions. Winfield Jr., who set a Minnesota record with seven interceptions on the year, and the Gophers defense rose up to the challenge in a big way on a big stage.
Fleck, who helped the Gophers end a 13-game losing streak to ranked opponents, has built this Minnesota program into a Big Ten contender in just his third season after arriving from Western Michigan, which reached the Cotton Bowl following a 13-1 2016 campaign. It’s been quite awhile since Minnesota’s football team has smelled the roses. The last occurrence for the Golden Gophers in Pasadena came in 1962, when they earned a 21-3 victory over UCLA in what was the very first nationally televised college football game in color.
There’s still a lot of football left to be played, as the Gophers travel to Iowa next Saturday to face a team that they have lost four straight against. But they have a two-game lead in the West with three to go, and if Fleck’s crew wins the division, a path is there for the program to earn a trip to Pasadena even if it loses in Indianapolis to likely Big Ten East winner Ohio State. The Buckeyes are positioned to advance to the College Football Playoff, which would open up a spot in the Rose Bowl for a Big Ten runner up.
It has been 58 years since the Gophers played in Pasadena, but it may be time to dream big if you’re a Gophers fan because Fleck is proving as he did at Western Michigan that he is the real deal.