Gophers deal crushing blow to Lions
Minnesota remains unbeaten
MINNEAPOLIS — Some Penn State players actually went up to coach James Franklin following Saturday’s hugely disappointing loss to Minnesota and told him they were sorry.
“There’s no reason for them to say sorry to me,” Franklin said.
But when expectations and goals are so high, the crushing sting of the season’s first loss can be devastating to young college athletes.
“There’s a lot of hurting guys in there — coaches, players, everybody that’s involved,” Franklin said, describing the locker room.
Then he added, “I know the fans are hurting.”
That last part was an understatement, based on the frustration level the Nittany Nation expressed after Saturday’s 31-26 loss to Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium.
Just four days earlier, an 8-0 Penn State team was ranked in the top four of the College Football Playoff for the first time ever, landing at No. 4. The Lions were being lauded all across the country, with many looking ahead to a showdown at Ohio State in two weeks to determine a possible playoff berth.
Minnesota, on the other hand, was disrespected to the tune of a No. 17 ranking in the CFP, despite also being 8-0.
The Gophers hadn’t played anybody, everyone was saying, so their unblemished record was hollow.
Was Minnesota for real?
Now we know.
The Gophers, playing their program’s biggest game in roughly 70 years, were definitely ready for the moment as they started fast with 14 first-quarter points and proved right away that they could play with Penn State. Quarterback Tanner Morgan had a monster day, completing 18-of-20 passes for 339 yards and three scores.
The Lions, meanwhile, struggled on defense from the get-go, giving up more than 200 yards in the first quarter. They got embarrassed by Minnesota’s passing attack, while their own quarterback, Sean Clifford, battled inconsistency all day.
The Gophers played great, the Lions had some key lapses, and Minnesota held on for victory to improve to 9-0 for the first time since 1941.
“It is incredible,” said Rashod Bateman, who had 203 yards receiving for the Gophers. “I cannot even put it into words. It is just a special moment for the state of Minnesota right now.”
The Gophers scored a touchdown for a 31-19 lead with 14:11 to play. Penn State had first-and-goal at the 9 on its next series but came up empty in a crucial spot.
Two runs by third-string tailback Devyn Ford produced five yards, then Clifford gained three on third down. Penn State went for it, and Clifford’s fade pass to K.J. Hamler didn’t connect.
Coming up empty on that trip was huge.
The Lions held, got the ball back with 6:17 to play and drove 63 yards for a touchdown to pull within 31-26 with 3:49 to go.
Penn State had two timeouts left and needed one defensive stop. Minnesota obliged by trying to throw on second down — a highly peculiar call — and Morgan was sacked for a 10-yard loss to bring up third-and-21. The Gophers wound up punting, giving Penn State the ball at its own 28 with 2:40 to go.
Penn State moved quickly, and on its third play, Clifford connected with Jahan Dotson for a 49-yard gain to the 11 with a minute to go.
Despite being outplayed, the Lions were 11 yards away from stealing an improbable victory.
But that wasn’t in the cards.
On second down from the 10, Clifford hit running back Journey Brown for eight yards to the 2, but receiver Daniel George was flagged for offensive pass interference. That buried Penn State in a second-and-24 hole at the 25.
Clifford couldn’t connect with George on second down. Then on third down, Clifford’s pass to the end zone intended for Hamler was intercepted by Jordan Howden to seal the win for Minnesota.
The Penn State players appeared numb and in disbelief after the game. Clifford was asked how he will deal with the loss and had a candid response.
“I don’t know. I haven’t been a part of a loss yet,” the first-year starter said.
Clifford finished 23-of-43 for 340 yards but threw three interceptions. The Lions’ offense looked out of sorts in several key situations, and offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne made some questionable playcalls, all of which came back to bite Penn State.
Penn State went for a two-point conversion and failed after scoring a TD with four minutes left in the third quarter. That cost the team a big point.
The Lions made a big mistake at the end of the first half that cost them a chance at four more points.
Clifford spiked the ball inside the 10 with 18 seconds to go on first down, leaving Penn State two chances to score instead of three. They had to settle for a field goal after failing to reach the end zone in their two plays.
“They executed way better than us,” Hamler said. “That’s really all I can say. No ifs, ands, butts about it.”
Brown ran for 124 yards on 14 carries for Penn State, including a 45-yard TD in the first quarter. Hamler also had a big day with 119 yards on seven catches.
But Minnesota played better on both sides of the ball and was in control of the game throughout. This wasn’t some kind of fluke loss for Penn State, and now the team has to find a way to overcome the defeat and regain confidence going forward.
“All of our goals are still out there ahead of us,” Franklin said.
Maybe, but probably not.
The Lions can still win the Big Ten if they beat Ohio State, and they’re not out of the running for a playoff berth. But both of those things seem highly unlikely now given how they played Saturday.
“It hurts,” tight end Pat Freiermuth said of the loss. “It’s going to be hard to move on from, but we’re going to have to move on quick.”