Nittany Lions struggle to connect in 24-10 loss to Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS – Penn State’s motto is “One Team,” and with everything the Nittany Lions have going against them dealing with the NCAA sanctions, the only way they’re going to beat quality opponents is if all aspects of the team are clicking at the same time.

That’s what coach Bill O’Brien means when he talks about complementary football, which he frequently mentions.

The problem for O’Brien, though, is that for all his talk about complementary football, the team has failed to walk the walk against good competition, and especially on the road.

Saturday’s 24-10 loss at Minnesota was the latest example for the Lions.

Their defense got shredded in the first half, taking the team out of the game, while the offense played well in trying to keep things close.

Things reversed in the second half as the defense figured things out and played the team right back in the game, only to have the offense fizzle.

Neither team scored after halftime, and Penn State scored the fewest points of O’Brien’s 21-game tenure.

How did the coach feel about the complementary football aspect?

“Not very good. Not very good. Nope. Uncomplementary,” he said.

The vastly improved Golden Gophers (8-2, 4-2 Big Ten) won their fourth consecutive conference game for the first time since 1973. They did so with clutch offensive plays in the first half to take advantage of Penn State’s poor pass defense, then held on in the second half as the Lions failed time and again to come up with the big plays they needed.

“We never threw in the towel, even after we lost our first two conference games,” said Tracy Claeys, the Gophers’ acting coach with Jerry Kill out on medical leave. “We were disappointed at the time, but we could still see ourselves getting better.”

Penn State’s defense got better in the second half Saturday, but by then all the damage had been done as Minnesota’s 24 first-half points held up. The defense couldn’t get off the field on several big third- and fourth-down plays, and again the secondary looked confused and out of position numerous times as the Gopher passing game effectively worked the middle of the field.

“We made a call, they had the right call for it, and we didn’t stop them on third down in the first half,” O’Brien said of all the key conversions.

Minnesota came in averaging only 145 yards passing per game, but they had 165 by halftime alone. Quarterback Philip Nelson guided a ball-control offense that converted 7-of-10 third downs and both fourth-down attempts in the first half, picking up big chunks of yardage over the middle.

Penn State gave Minnesota a gift of three points as running back Bill Belton fumbled on the game’s first play from scrimmage, leading to a field goal. The Gophers then went on two long scoring drives – 96 yards in 8:10 and 70 yards in 6:54 – to build a 17-7 lead.

The Lions’ defense had no answers as the Gophers piled up 241 yards and 13 first downs while winning the time of possession 19:20 to Penn State’s 10:40.

Penn State’s offense, on the other hand, had a solid first half, led by Zach Zwinak on the ground. He gained 99 yards on 14 carries, including a 38-yard burst that helped set up a touchdown.

The game’s biggest sequence came in the closing minutes of the first half when the Lions, trailing 17-7, drove deep in Gopher territory and faced fourth-and-1 from the nine. O’Brien lined up to go for it but changed his mind after a Minnesota timeout.

A touchdown there would have made it 17-14, but instead Sam Ficken kicked a 27-yard field goal.

Penn State lost a little momentum having to settle for three points, then it lost a ton of momentum when the Gophers quickly marched right downfield for a 74-yard scoring drive right before the half.

On third-and-10 from the Lions’ 24, Nelson hit wide-open tight end Maxx Williams for a touchdown that made it 24-10.

As poorly as Penn State’s defense played in the first half, that unit stepped up over the final 30 minutes and came up with plenty of stops to keep giving the offense chances to come back. But it never happened.

The Lions moved the ball well, keyed by Zwinak’s 150 yards on 26 carries, but O’Brien made a curious decision going away from the running game on one key possession in the fourth quarter.

Penn State had first down at the Gopher 16 with 10 minutes left after a 30-yard pass to Belton. Rather than continuing to pound Zwinak at the Minnesota defense, O’Brien had Christian Hackenberg throw four straight times.

All incomplete.

It was a windy day at TCF Bank Stadium, with gusts up to 31 mph, and O’Brien decided early on that his offense’s best attack was running the ball. Hackenberg threw only six passes in the first half and just 10 through three quarters, yet in that key sequence late, O’Brien went solely to the air.

“I thought the wind was a factor,” O’Brien said. “Obviously they threw the ball pretty well, but I just felt like we could run the ball. We ran the ball. We ran the ball but couldn’t make any plays down in the red area. That’s what it came down to.”

There was still enough time for the Lions to get back in the game the next time the offense got the ball, and Hackenberg moved the team down to first-and-goal at the two-yard line. But on second down, the quarterback pulled away from center Ty Howle too early and fumbled, and Minnesota recovered with 6:40 remaining.

“(The defense) came out and played well in the second half, made some good adjustments at halftime and did a nice job,” O’Brien said. “Offensively we didn’t pick up our end of the bargain in the second half, so it’s disappointing.”