No. 5 Penn St., No. 13 Minnesota set for clash of unbeatens

FILE - In this Sept. 28, 2019, file photo, Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck celebrates a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind. Fleck believes keeping an open line of communication is the key to allowing him to redshirt a player without resistance, and avoid having an athlete make the decision himself.

STATE COLLEGE – Penn State (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) head coach James Franklin will take a well-rested Nittany Lions squad that was idle last week to Minneapolis for a contest between Big Ten unbeatens on Saturday.

No. 13 Minnesota (8-0, 5-0 Big Ten) is off to its best season since 1941, while the No. 5-ranked Nittany Lions are 8-0 for the first time under Franklin and the fourth time since they joined the Big Ten in 1993.

Although Franklin’s been at Penn State for six seasons, this Saturday will mark his first contest in the Twin Cities. Minnesota is also coming off an idle week.

“(We) haven't been to this venue, so (we’re) trying to get as much information as we can on what to expect,” Franklin said. “What's the wind like in the stadium because the wind is different in all these stadiums; what's the temperature going to be like; what's the locker room going to be like, just so we can plan and be as prepared.”

The Nittany Lions last traveled to Minnesota in 2013 and were defeated 24-10. Both teams, however, played as recently as 2016. The Nittany Lions earned a 29-26 overtime win in State College that year, a victory that ignited the Lions to the Big Ten title. Penn State and Minnesota have played just 14 times since 1993, and the Nittany Lions own a 9-5 series advantage.

As Minnesota has surged in the AP Top 25 poll, so has its offense. The Golden Gophers sputtered at the beginning of the season, grinding out close wins it its first four contests. Over the last month, the unit has moved at breakneck speed as it's outscored opponents 168-41.

The Golden Gophers boast two 600-yard receivers in Rashod Bateman (644 yards and six touchdowns) and Tyler Johnson (626 yards and seven touchdowns). Quarterback Tanner Morgan has thrown for 1,761 yards and 18 touchdowns against four interceptions.

The Golden Gophers have averaged 38.4 points per game.

“(Morgan) is very accurate,” Franklin said. “He manages the offense really well. They have got a lot of confidence in him. He's playing at a high level right now. Rodney Smith, the running back, seems like this guy has been playing there forever; he has. He's been there for six years, and (is) really doing a good job for them. Tyler Johnson, as well as Bateman, really could name all their wide receivers – they are playing extremely, extremely well.”

Minnesota's success on offense has been aided by a talented, large offensive line. The Golden Gophers this season have rotated several players up front, similarly to Penn State. The unit boasts the biggest player in college football in 6-foot-9, 400-pound offensive right tackle Daniel Faalele.

“They have the biggest offensive line I think in the country, college, including the NFL,” Franklin said.

Penn State’s defensive line has been effective all year against the run and should face a formidable challenge against Minnesota’s over-sized offensive line. The Nittany Lions have the nation’s No. 2 run defense and have only allowed five rushing touchdowns. Golden Gophers running back Rodney Smith has rushed for 889 yards (111.1 yards per game) and seven touchdowns this year.

The Nittany Lions’ defense will be without starting defensive tackle Antonio Shelton, who will serve a one-game suspension for drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty against Michigan State.

Defensive tackles Robert Windsor, a starter, and reserves PJ Mustipher, Judge Culpepper and Fred Hansard are expected to see an increase in playing time. Mustipher’s play this season – 21 tackles – garnered praise from defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos.

“As a unit and as a defense, I think we have the utmost confidence in PJ, and (Antonio) not being able to start for us this week, there's no doubt in my mind he's going to come in and do his part,” Gross-Matos said. “Since he's been here, he comes into games, people see the flash. PJ is a big playmaker, and it's going to be an opportunity for him to really step into that role.”

Penn State’s idle week occurred at an opportune time for running back Noah Cain, who suffered an injury early against Michigan State on Oct. 26. Franklin on Tuesday said he expects both Cain and cornerback John Reid, who was also injured against Michigan State, to play this weekend.

Cain logged his first career start against the Spartans and leads the Nittany Lions in yards rushing with 355. Cain, Journey Brown (Meadville High), Ricky Slade and Devyn Ford are expected to see multiple carries from the backfield, as has been the norm all year for the position group.

Minnesota’s pass defense will attempt to corral the Nittany Lions’ potent pass-catching duo of receiver KJ Hamler and tight end Pat Freiermuth. The two combined to tally four touchdown receptions against the Spartans. Freiermuth recorded three touchdown catches while Hamler added another.

Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford has been effective on the road this year. He’s thrown for 704 yards and eight touchdowns against two interceptions in road contests.

The Golden Gophers’ secondary is allowing 166.4 yards passing per game and ranks ninth nationally in the category.

"I've gotten to know (coach) P.J. (Fleck) pretty well over the years," Franklin said. "He's obviously done a great job. You look at what he was able to do at Western Michigan, you look at what he's been able to do now at Minnesota, it's hard to not be impressed with what he's been able to do."

Elton Hayes is a veteran sports writer who covers Penn State for CNHI LLC publications. Contact him at ehayes@cnhi.com or follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.

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