Minnesota was nearly a touchdown underdog coming into the game, but the Golden Gophers emerged 1-0 in the Penn State championship season on Saturday.
No. 17 Minnesota upset No. 4 Penn State 31-26 on Saturday to remain unbeaten in 2019 and head into the game at Iowa next weekend 9-0.
“That was the reason I wanted to come here, to experience stuff like this at the University of Minnesota,” defensive end Carter Coughlin said.
As the Gophers took the knee on the last down, the field became quickly flooded with fans from nearly all sections of the stadium.
Minnesota had dominated the first half and was doing its best to prevent a Penn State comeback in the second. The Nittany Lions were within 20 yards of taking the lead late. They had driven down the field on a brilliant pass from quarterback Sean Clifford to Jahan Dotson to bring Penn State into the red zone with under two minutes to play.
This drive was a continuation of Penn State’s later drives that were explosive and methodical by means of the passing game. Thanks to an offensive pass interference penalty, the Nittany Lions were pushed back to the 24-yard line, forcing Clifford to throw for the score that would have put them ahead.
On 3rd and 24, Clifford sent a pass to the end zone. Minnesota’s Jordan Howden jumped on the route and intercepted the pass on the maroon turf. There, with 1:01 left to play and a five-point lead Minnesota took over on its own 20-yard line and lined up in victory formation for the program’s biggest win in a long time.
““I was so proud for [Howden],” defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. said. “I was really happy for him once he caught it.”
How did Gophers get to the point where Howden could save the day?
Quarterback Tanner Morgan and wide receiver Rashod Bateman had themselves a prolific day on offense. Morgan was deadly accurate, especially early and Bateman was running routes and fooling defensive backs to have wide open looks.
Morgan finished the day 18 of 20 with 339 yards and three touchdowns. Bateman finished with 203 yards, second-most in program history and the most receiving yards by any receiver ever at TCF Bank Stadium. Those 203 yards came on seven receptions and one touchdown catch.
“A guy gets open and all you have to do is put it in his area and he’s going to make a play,” Morgan said. “You guys have seen the things he can do with the ball when he gets it in his hands, he’s a special player.”
Penn State spent most of the game looking for an answer defensively for Bateman, who was wide open on most of his catches with streaks down the sideline and some quick stops with his feet to stay in bounds.
Minnesota won the turnover battle on Saturday 3-1. While Howden had the game-clinching interception, Winfield had two in the game to make it seven on the season for him. That ties a program record for interceptions in a season.
Most importantly to Winfield’s two interceptions, the Gophers’ offense took over and turned each of those ensuing possessions into touchdowns.
Overall, though, Minnesota’s secondary was up to the task of Penn State’s explosive players like K.J. Hamler, Pat Freiermuth and Journey Brown. With Winfield’s interceptions, Howden’s interception and two Chris Williamson tips in the end zone, the Gophers kept the Nittany Lions offense struggling to gain momentum for much of the game.
“As you’ve heard, we always talk about response,” Coughlin said. “When we give up a big run, get them in the red zone, it’s time to respond. They got here, but let’s shut them down,”
The victory marks the first time Minnesota has beaten a top-five-ranked opponent at home since 1977. When asked about how to prepare to stay undefeated this season next week against Iowa, the team responded unanimously.
“We’ve got our eyes fixed on the goal,” Coughlin said. “Which is going 1-0 in the Iowa season and we’re going to take care of business.”