The Gophers, No. 17 in the College Football Playoff rankings, will face their toughest opponent of the season so far in No. 4 Penn State, marking the biggest game for the program in decades. The 8-0 teams are evenly matched, allowing and accumulating nearly identical yards per game. But only one can emerge with a still-perfect season intact.
Prediction: Penn State 25, Gophers 22
THREE BIG STORY LINES
Defense wins championships
Penn State’s defense is one of the best in the country, allowing just 9.6 points per game. The Gophers defense has allowed an average of just 10.25 in the past four games. Both offenses will have a challenge to overcome.
Gophers linebacker Kamal Martin is tied for the team lead with 46 tackles despite missing three games this season. The latest apparent knee injury kept him out of the Maryland game ahead of the bye week, and he is a game-time decision against Penn State.
Special teams struggles
The last time the Gophers played Penn State, the overtime loss came down to just a field goal’s difference, with seven throughout the game. The Gophers have been inconsistent across special teams this season and could struggle if the game comes down to that.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Penn State receiver KJ Hamler vs. Gophers cornerbacks
Hamler is a dynamic playmaker with 620 receiving yards and eight touchdowns this season. But the Gophers’ secondary has been a surprise strength this season, with breakout performances from cornerbacks like Chris Williamson and Benjamin St-Juste. They’ll need to break up Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford’s pass game.
Gophers running back Rodney Smith vs. Penn State’s defensive line
Smith is on a five-game streak of at least 100 rushing yards. With a deep and athletic defensive line, Penn State is second in the FBS in run defense, allowing 68.4 yards per game. The Gophers offensive line is big, but it’ll need more than that to block Penn State.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
7 Undefeated teams left in the FBS, including Penn State and the Gophers. On Saturday, that number will decrease to no more than five, as No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama also play that day with perfect records.
THE GOPHERS WILL WIN IF …
Their passing game compensates for a stymied rush. The Gophers receivers are the best Penn State has faced this season, and its secondary is something to exploit. If the defense plays at its peak and special teams don’t beat themselves, the Gophers can win.
PENN STATE WILL WIN IF …
The Nittany Lions do what they have been doing. They’re not an unbeatable team and have shown weakness at times, but their talent pool is much deeper than the Gophers’. As long as Clifford, Hamler and the D-line show up, they’re the favorites.