MINNEAPOLIS — When P.J. Fleck was hired on Jan. 6, 2017, he had a simple message for Minnesota fans — “change is coming.” Just 1,037 days after making that statement, Fleck and his staff led the program to its biggest moment in nearly 50 years.
With less than a minute remaining in Saturday’s showdown between two undefeated teams, the Gophers held onto a 31-26 lead. Minnesota had to fend off one final surge by No. 4 Penn State to secure a program-defining win.
Nittany Lions quarterback Sean Clifford stepped up in the pocket and tossed a pass to the end zone. The entire stadium held its breath as the ball whizzed over the middle. Safety Jordan Howden stepped in front of the throw to secure Minnesota’s upset win. Fans stormed the field at TCF Bank Stadium to celebrate one of the biggest victories in program history.
It’s safe to say change has officially arrived in Dinkytown. With the entire nation watching, Minnesota made a big statement.
The Gophers’ wide receivers haunted Penn State’s secondary with explosive plays. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman hauled in seven catches for 203 yards and a touchdown. Quarterback Tanner Morgan stood in the pocket and shredded the Penn State secondary. He completed 18 of his 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns, including a key third-down throw in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota picked up its first win against a top-five opponent since 1999. It’s just the seventh time they have accomplished this since 1960. Dating to last year, the program has won 11 consecutive games for the first time since 1939-1942.
When Minnesota needed to overcome a late third quarter surge by the Nittany Lions, sophomore wide receiver Rashod Bateman stepped up. After a turnover near midfield fueled a Penn State scoring drive, the Gophers’ lead was trimmed to five points. Like they have all season, Minnesota responded.
Bateman ran a smooth corner route and put the defensive back on skates. The key reception picked up 23 yards and moved the chains on second-and-11. On the same drive, Minnesota faced a third-and-9 situation. Morgan fired a deep pass up the sideline to Bateman, who adjusted and made a huge 36-yard reception. Minnesota pushed into the red zone and finished the drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge by Seth Green. The big-time plays by Bateman changed the balance of this game.
AN OPPORTUNISTIC DEFENSE
The Gophers defense started the game with a quick takeaway. Clifford threw deep to Justin Shorter, but Antoine Winfield Jr. was covering the deep half. Winfield Jr. read the play, stepped in front of the pass and hauled in the interception. An early takeaway set the tone.
The Gophers’ offense quickly capitalized off the Nittany Lions’ turnover. Just a few plays into the opening drive, Bateman ran a go-route up the sideline and the safety couldn’t get over the top from the boundary. Penn State sent nickel pressure and running back Shannon Brooks perfectly picked it up. Morgan hit Bateman in stride for an effortless 66-yard touchdown.
Early in the game, Minnesota’s run fits were a little leaky. They were providing help in the back end and occasionally playing single-high, so the Gophers’ linebackers and perimeter players had to make important tackles in the second-level.
In the first quarter, Howden got sucked inside and Chris Williamson lost footing in the alley. Journey Brown escaped and broke free for a 45-yard touchdown. On the next Penn State drive, Brown dodged linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin in space and sprinted for 39 yards. A couple plays later, Clifford connected over the middle for 23 yards. Minnesota’s defense managed to force two incompletions and the Nittany Lions kicked a field goal.
Minnesota dialed up pressure to force Clifford into mistakes and errant throws. In the second quarter, Carter Coughlin aligned in the A-gap and stunted. Sori-Marin blitzed up the A-gap and destroyed the running back. Clifford tossed the pass off his back foot and Winfield Jr. hauled in his second interception of the day. Winfield’s awareness, versatility and pre-snap skills are so valuable and change the entire defense.
Linebacker Thomas Barber had a critical sequence late in the first half, too. The Gophers were dropping linebackers and he tallied two red zone pass breakups. Those plays held Penn State to a field goal right before halftime.
Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi continued to show different looks up front. On Penn State’s first drive of the second half, Boye Mafe, Esezi Otomewo and Coughlin aligned tightly inside. Coughlin bluffed A-gap pressure and dropped into coverage. Mafe bent the corner and Otomewo shed off his block for a third-down sack. Defensive tackle Sam Renner was also disruptive the entire day and continued to get his hands in passing lanes.
After Minnesota’s fourth quarter scoring drive, the Nittany Lions pushed downfield, but a pass breakup in the red zone by Williamson created a turnover on downs. Clifford tried to toss a fade to wide receiver KJ Hamler, but Williamson swiveled his head and knocked the pass away. Minnesota’s cornerbacks were agressive and physical the entire day and helped slow Penn State’s dynamic weapons.
PASSING ATTACK TAKES OVER
Gophers’ offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarocca dialed up a dynamite gameplan. He attacked the Penn State secondary vertically with go-routes, deep slants and posts. They occasionally ran bunch sets and called tunnel/bubble screens at the right moments. Minnesota’s offensive line deserves credit for how well it picked up blitzes and stunts.
Morgan had time to find his targets downfield. The Gophers also mixed in heavy personnel packages with an additional lineman to take advantage of the physical differences up front. Minnesota ran a beautiful melting pot of rushing concepts, including inside and outside zone. The stretch plays gave running backs multiple creases and took advantage of the offensive line’s movement skills.
In the second quarter, Minnesota pushed up the field off two explosive passing plays to Johnson and Bateman. Bateman settled into the coverage soft spot and picked up 28 yards. The sophomore wide receiver had 109 receiving yards and a touchdown in the first quarter alone. In the red zone, Minnesota called a tunnel screen to wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell. Penn State sent pressure, which allowed this play to work. Curtis Dunlap Jr. and Blaise Andries executed their blocks downfield and Autman-Bell made a dynamic play in the open field. He sprinted into the end zone for a 21-yard touchdown and Minnesota claimed an early 14-7 lead.
The offensive momentum continued as Minnesota stretched the field vertically. Morgan hit Bateman off a slant for 22 yards. It was a beautiful release by Bateman, who used smooth footwork to get open against single-coverage. A few plays later, Morgan aired it out to Johnson. He made the difficult one-handed grab, pushed a defender over and ran into the end zone for a 38-yard score. The simple go-route torched the man-to-man coverage Johnson had on the outside. Minnesota averaged 18.8 yards per completion and vertically obliterated the Penn State secondary.
Minnesota’s offense didn’t make many mistakes the entire day. The team’s only turnover didn’t prove costly. Early in the second half, running back Shannon Brooks was stripped and fumbled the ball near midfield. Penn State capitalized by finding Hamler through the air and off jet-motion. In the red zone, Clifford connected with tight end Nick Bowers for a 10-yard touchdown reception. The Gophers’ lead was trimmed to five points with 4:05 remaining in the third quarter.
However, Minnesota’s explosive passing offense carried them the entire day. When the Gophers needed to make a big play late in the game, they responded and proved they can go toe-to-toe with some of the nation’s best.