Gophers replay Gophers 31, Penn State 26
The Gophers scored on their first two drives and built up a two-touchdown lead at one point before Penn State cut it within five points twice in the second half. But a game-saving interception from safety Jordan Howden sealed the Gophers’ first win against a top-five opponent since 1999.
With Penn State’s rush defense ranking second in the FBS heading into the game, the Gophers relied on their talented group of receivers to lead the way. Sophomore Rashod Bateman set a TCF Bank Stadium record with 203 receiving yards, just the second Gophers player to ever crack 200 yards. Senior Tyler Johnson added 104 yards. Quarterback Tanner Morgan had his second-most-accurate game, completing 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns.
“The best thing a quarterback does is he’s a distributor,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said on WCCO radio Sunday. “He’s like the point guard in basketball. Just distribute it to your playmakers, make really good decisions, put the ball where it needs to be, make really good passes, and your playmakers can take it from there.”
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• Antoine Winfield Jr.’s tackles: His two interceptions were hard to miss, as his season total of seven now ties a school record set in 1970 and ranks second in the FBS this year. But the sophomore safety also tied for a game-high 11 tackles against Penn State. He earned the Walter Camp FBS National Defensive Player of the Week award for his performance, which directly led to 14 points.
• Linebacker injuries: Linebacker Kamal Martin warmed up but did not play Saturday, with Fleck holding one of the top defensive players out because he hadn’t fully practiced since enduring an apparent knee injury at Rutgers on Oct. 19. Fellow linebacker Thomas Barber also left the game very late on after making a diving tackle and taking a header into the turf. Missing those two seniors would be a major deficit to the defense. Another linebacker, sophomore Alex Strazzanti, also limped off the field with an injury. But he plays behind other young linebackers Mariano Sori-Marin, Braelen Oliver and Thomas Rush.
• Kicker question: True freshman Michael Lantz has been the starting kicker all year, going 5-for-8 on field goals, his longest at 37 yards and missing just two of his 38 extra points. But he sat against Penn State in favor of redshirt freshman Brock Walker, making his first start after debuting two weeks ago against Maryland to kick one extra point late in the blowout. He made one 26-yard field goal and all four extra points. Fleck clarified on the radio Sunday that Lantz had some “leg tightness” later in the week, which kept him from playing. But Walker has been the Gophers’ No. 2 kicker and “has put himself in a position to have an opportunity to continue” to play, according to Fleck.
Up next: at Iowa
3 p.m. Saturday, Kinnick Stadium • Ch. 5
The skinny: With No. 23 Iowa effectively out of the Big Ten West race after just falling short against Wisconsin on Saturday, 24-22, the No. 7 Gophers look like a near-lock for the Big Ten Championship Game, with a two-game lead on the rest of the field. They also have a great opportunity to make some more history.
They haven’t won at Iowa since 1999 and have also lost in the rivalry six of the past seven years, with the most recent win in 2014. With the Gophers reclaiming the Axe last season for the first time in 14 years, they’ll want the pig to complete their border trophy collection.
Iowa (6-3, 3-3) is a defensive team, allowing an average of just 11.7 points per game. But the Gophers (9-0, 6-0) have scored 28 or more points in all of their games this season, averaging 37.6. The Hawkeyes offense will struggle to keep up with that despite senior quarterback Nate Stanley, who has completed 176 of 290 passes for 2,158 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions this season.