Penn State was in a serious rut, seemingly without answers for the Gophers defense. The Nittany Lions trailed 13-3 in the third quarter Saturday, facing third-and-10, five drives removed from their last trip into Minnesota territory.
“They’re just out of sorts right now,” Big Ten Network analyst Chuck Long said. “They’re way out of rhythm with their offense.”
On first down, Gophers linebacker Jack Lynn shed a block and stuffed Saquon Barkley behind the line of scrimmage. On second down, Antonio Shenault had Irvin Charles blanketed, as Trace McSorley’s pass fell incomplete.
The Beaver Stadium crowd groaned its disapproval. But McSorley stepped up on third down and threaded the needle to Charles, who broke an arm tackle by Adekunle Ayinde and raced 80 yards for a touchdown.
That sequence — two nice plays followed by disaster — was far too familiar for the Gophers. Last season, they were among the nation’s best teams at preventing big plays, but it’s become a serious issue heading into Saturday’s game against Iowa.
“We could put on the video, and there’s going to be so many good plays, and it’d be like, ‘Man, they’ve got a good defense,’ ” said defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel. “And we just do some stupid stuff.
“It’s just execution, but that’s on me. There’s no ‘single out the player and throw them under the bus’ or anything like that. It’s on me to get the right people in the right situation.”
The Gophers already have given up four plays of at least 50 yards. Last year, they allowed two of those all season.
Minnesota and Missouri tied for first in the nation last season with the fewest plays of 20-plus yards allowed (36).
This year, through four games, the Gophers have allowed 22 such plays, ranking 76th in the nation.
“Sometimes it’s a mistake,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “Sometimes you just get out-athleted. And sometimes it’s not playing very smart. And then you throw in the fact it’s not always the same person. It’s somebody different every time.”
After rallying to take a 23-20 lead at Penn State, the Gophers were 54 seconds from a 4-0 start.
Andrew Stelter bull-rushed a Penn State lineman, nearly sacking McSorley, who tossed the ball away in desperation. On second down, Jonathan Celestin had Barkley covered down the sideline on a wheel route for another incompletion.
But then McSorley pulled off another third-and-10 McMiracle. Julian Huff blitzed, forcing the sophomore to lob the ball off his back foot. Playing press coverage, Jalen Myrick stayed close to Chris Godwin until the last instant, when Godwin dived for a 20-yard catch.
Three plays after Godwin’s diving catch, the Gophers had another breakdown, with nobody spying McSorley, as he took off on a 26-yard run, setting up the tying field goal.
“If it’s the same person, it’s easy to correct; you find somebody else,” Claeys said. “But right now it’s different people at different times in the game, and it’s that inconsistency that is driving it.”
As Sawvel noted, the Gophers have given up just 17 first-half points combined the past three games. But they’ve given up 65 points in the second half.
That doesn’t include Saturday’s overtime. The Gophers grabbed a three-point lead, but once again, their undoing was the unscripted big play.
Nine times during regulation, they had tackled Barkley for a loss or no gain. He’s one of the Big Ten’s most talented backs, but several Gophers made highlight-reel tackles against him, including Myrick, Celestin, Lynn, Damarius Travis, Duke McGhee, Julian Huff and Antoine Winfield Jr.
But Barkley took the overtime handoff 25 yards for the winning touchdown, as Gaelin Elmore and Ayinde both missed chances to tackle him.
“Nobody was out of position, nobody did the wrong play,” defensive lineman Hank Ekpe said. “It just came down to tackling pretty much.”
Ekpe said it all comes down to fundamentals, something the coaches have emphasized heading into the Iowa game.
“I haven’t lost confidence that we could be good on defense,” Sawvel said. “I think we could be really good, but we’ve got to make sure we learn from our mistakes from this past week.”