Two nearly identical offenses, two nearly identical defenses.
It’s a classic Big Ten, top-25 team showdown set up for this coming Saturday. For the first time in a long time, that descriptor can apply to a Minnesota Golden Gophers football game.
No. 13 Minnesota hosts No. 5 Penn State in arguably the Gophers’ biggest game since 2003 when they hosted Michigan at the Metrodome. As the two teams continued through the season to this point to remain undefeated, the hype surrounding the matchup got larger and larger.
Minnesota is in a big-time game with a chance to make it to the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis, and fans are justifiably excited about the team. The Gophers have been an offensive juggernaut with 307 points scored and the team’s defense has come up clutch in late-game situations to preserve victories. How will that body of work stand up to the first ranked team the Gophers have faced all season?
In terms of offense, Minnesota and Penn State are nearly identical. The Nittany Lions have scored 308 points this season while the Gophers follow by just one fewer point. Minnesota has scored 42 touchdowns and Penn State has scored 41.
The two defenses are very similar, too. Besides Penn State having a clear advantage in touchdowns given up this year with just nine compared to Minnesota’s 16, the Nittany Lions give up an average of 280 yards per game, while Minnesota averages nearly 284.
Take a look here to see how Minnesota and Penn State match up in all facets of the game.
Minnesota’s offense has been unexpectedly explosive this season. There were question marks with quarterback Zack Annexstad going down with an injury in the offseason, but Tanner Morgan took what he learned from last season and has turned it into an eight-game winning streak to start the season.
Morgan has thrown 18 touchdown passes this season and boasted a 180.53 passer rating, throwing mainly to Minnesota’s top-three receivers: senior Tyler Johnson, sophomore Rashod Bateman and redshirt sophomore Chris Autman-Bell. Those three have combined for 17 touchdowns and 1,558 yards.
The receivers haven’t just been making routine grabs, but they have been making highlight-reel plays like this one from Bateman early this season:
In the rushing game, Minnesota has another three-headed monster with Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks. Those three have combined for 14 touchdowns and 1,482 yards this season. Smith has been particularly dominant while averaging more than 110 yards per game and breaking the program’s all-purpose yard record.
Penn State has also had a spread-out rushing attack. Four running backs have played in all eight games, with each player at more than 30 attempts on the season. Surprisingly, quarterback Sean Clifford leads the team in rushing attempts, but stands as third on net yards gained.
As for official running backs, Noah Cain leads the way with 350 yards through eight games. Not far behind is Journey Brown, who has 297 yards. Between both Cain and Brown, the duo has accounted for nine of the 19 rushing touchdowns this season for Penn State.
In the passing game, Clifford has been dominant with 20 touchdowns paired with just three interceptions, including four passes for scores in this game against Michigan State. He has 1,931 yards this season and a quarterback rating of 164.91. Junior KJ Hamler has been Clifford’s favorite target this season with 37 receptions. He has scored eight touchdowns with 620 yards. Tight end Pat Freiermuth has just 291 yards, but has been used as a red-zone target with seven scores so far this season.
Minnesota’s defense has rebounded from last season’s tough stretch that saw the team give up more than 50 points in two of the final six games. Since then, Joe Rossi has taken over full time as the defensive coordinator and have kept the team winning games in 2019.
Redshirt sophomore Antoine Winfield Jr. has led the way on the defense this season at defensive back. He leads the team with 33 solo tackles and five interceptions, including this game-sealing grab in the end zone early this season.
Senior Kamal Martin has come in in five games and dominated at linebacker, so much so to earn a Big Ten player of the week award after the victory against Nebraska. His stifling presence has helped the Gophers both against the pass and the run. Overall, the defense has allowed an average of 20 points per game this season.
On the other hand, for Penn State, two players are tied for the team lead in interceptions: junior Tariq Castro-Fields and fifth-year player John Reid.
The Nittany Lions have dominated teams overall as a single unit. That domination is seen in the team giving up an average of fewer than 10 points per game this season, compared to their average of scoring nearly 40 points on offense in 2019.
While the stats indicate these two dominant football programs are quite similar, the test to prove which team will get its first loss happens on Saturday in Dinkytown.
The Gophers and Nittany Lions will face off at 11:00 am on ABC.