Chip Scoggins

Kirk Ciarrocca had no intention of giving away his game plan, obviously, but the Gophers offensive coordinator wasn’t shy in sharing his overall mind-set in preparing to face one of college football’s stingiest defenses.

“This might surprise you a little bit,” he said. “We’ve got to do what we do.”

He used that exact phrase twice. Do what we do. In other words, run the ball. Control the clock. Be physical. Throw play-action passes to their star wide receivers. Same old, same old.

Maybe this was a case of a coach using the media for pregame subterfuge, knowing he has something else up his sleeve. Or maybe Ciarrocca was merely sending an honest, direct message to everyone involved in a clash of unbeatens that features a classic strength vs. strength matchup.

The Gophers offense is on a historic pace scoring points, headlined by a collection of skill players that is unique by program standards. Penn State fields one of the best defenses in college football, headlined by two players who rank among the best nationally at their positions: defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos and linebacker Micah Parsons.

The Gophers love to run the ball. The Nittany Lions boast the nation’s No. 2-ranked run defense. This is a big-boy matchup.

Ciarrocca insists he won’t deviate from his true self.

“If you’re coming into this game expecting to see a different offense, you’re going to be disappointed,” he said. “You’re going to see what we do and what you’ve seen over the course of my three years here. They create some very big challenges for us. But I feel like we have a pretty good offense, too.”

The Gophers rank 14th nationally in scoring (38.4 points per game) and have reached 34 points in seven consecutive games for the first time since 1905.

Penn State ranks second nationally in both scoring defense (9.6) and rushing defense (68.4 yards per game) and ninth in sacks (30).

The outcome will be decided in the trenches. Penn State’s defensive line is widely regarded as one of the best in college football. Gross-Matos is viewed as a first-round pick in the NFL draft next spring, but he’s not a one-man show. The line is athletic and deep, easily the toughest challenge to date for the Gophers’ heavyweights.

This sets up as a battle of wills. Can the Gophers establish their running game with their trio of backs (Rodney Smith, Mohamed Ibrahim and Shannon Brooks)? Or does Penn State eliminate that threat and force quarterback Tanner Morgan to rely more on his arm?

“We have incredible faith in our guys up front to do their job,” Morgan said. “[Penn State’s] defensive line is incredibly athletic and talented, so that’s a challenge we’re going to be ready for.”

The formula is no secret. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck noted recently that the first statistic he checks after every game is time of possession. He’s old-school in his philosophy that way at age 38.

The Gophers rank in the top 10 nationally in third-down conversions and time of possession, which go hand in hand. They desire to control the clock with a physical running game that, in turn, creates advantageous situations for their dynamic receiving corps, led by future NFL players Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman.

“They play probably a style of football that you don’t see much anymore,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “They are going to try to suffocate you with their offensive line, with their style of offense and with time of possession.”

The Gophers can punish defenses multiple ways. Their big-play receivers present matchup problems, too. Bateman and Johnson will have a size advantage against smaller Penn State cornerbacks. Whether they’re able to exploit that likely depends on how effectively Morgan’s line protects him.

“I think this is the best wide receivers that we have faced this year,” Franklin said. “But I’d also make the argument, I don’t know if they have seen defensive backs or pass rush like we have been.”

They haven’t. But the Gophers possess the most talented offense the Nittany Lions have faced. A good ol’ strength vs. strength showdown. As Ciarrocca said, no mystery involved. Each side hoping to do what it does.

 

chip.scoggins@startribune.com