If the Gophers, ranked No. 17 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, are going to beat No. 4 Penn State on Saturday in the biggest football game in decades for the program, they are going to need a resilient group of senior defensive players to be at their best.

The defense is as talented as any in the nation because of seniors such as rush end Carter Coughlin; linebackers Thomas Barber and Kamal Martin; defensive linemen Winston DeLattiboudere and Sam Renner, and cornerback Chris Williamson, who have stuck with this program through thick and thin.

Martin is tied with safety Antoine Winfield Jr. for the team lead with 46 tackles. Coughlin leads the team with 3½ sacks, with Renner right behind him with three. Williamson has done a little bit of everything with 42 tackles (third on the team), an interception, 2½ sacks and four tackles for loss. Barber is fourth on the team in tackles, has 3½ tackles for loss and has one of the Gophers three fumble recoveries on the season. DeLattiboudere, who has 19 tackles, has one of the other recoveries.

“They have been around a long time, they have seen a lot of things,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “They have seen a lot of highs, they have seen a lot of lows, they have seen a lot of different ways of doing it. Some of them have had three head coaches. To be able to see them grow up, to be the men that they really want to become, that is really special to me.

“They have earned everything that they have gotten. It’s a special group of seniors because of everything they have endured, everything they have accomplished and everything they have been through and how tight-knit of a group they are. If we didn’t have them, we would not be in the position that we are.”

‘What we can be’

Las Vegas insiders have the Gophers as seven-point underdogs heading into the contest, but the Gophers have won their three Big Ten home Conference games this season by a combined score of 126-34.

Fleck said this is the kind of game he believed was possible when he took over as head coach in 2017.

“Anytime you have a game like this, you want to play at home, you know, at TCF Bank Stadium and in front of Minnesota Golden Gophers fans, a sellout crowd,” he said. “That is going to be really exciting. Having a maroon-out. Having all of our gold towels waving. That is what we can be.

“The whole point of this is to get people to see what we can be and what we can become. Saturday afternoon, they are going to get to see what we can become and what we hope to become as we keep moving forward.”

Fleck said he understands the challenge of going against one of the premier programs in college football.

“They are a top-five team for a reason,” he said. “They are on top of the rankings in recruiting, the top five every single year, for a reason. They are well-coached. [Penn State coach] James Franklin is a tremendous, tremendous football coach and a wonderful human being. He has his team playing at a high level.”

Report on Penn State

Fleck said one benefit in facing the Nittany Lions this week is the Gophers have had two weeks to scout them following their 52-10 victory over Maryland. Penn State, however, is also coming off a bye week.

The Nittany Lions have faced a much tougher schedule than the Gophers, and their opponents have a combined record of 38-32. Gophers opponents are 33-37.

Penn State ranks fifth in total offense (391.6 yards per game) in conference play, and Fleck said they use a balanced approach.

“They throw the ball a lot, No. 1 [with receiver] KJ Hamler [37 catches for 620 yards and eight TDs]; they run the ball, they’ll do whatever it takes,” Fleck said. “They’re very balanced, 50-50 with what they want to be able to do. The quarterback [Sean Clifford] is a great runner as well, tight ends are a big part of their system, and they have explosive playmakers on the outside.”

Fleck said their defense is stellar, ranking third in Big Ten play, allowing 254 yards per game.

“They’re one of the best defenses in the country,” he said. “D-line is deep and strong. Linebackers are incredibly deep and strong and long. They have no injuries, really. And the secondary keeps everything in front of them.”

Penn State has played two games against ranked opponents — beating Iowa 17-12 on the road and beating Michigan 28-21 at home.

“I have watched them all. They are a very good football team,” he said. “Every team that they have played, they have found a way to win, but not only that … they have won pretty handily. They were able to run away with it.”

Run game battle

So how can the Gophers win this game?

“I think in any big game that you have that is this magnitude, I think the team that takes care of the ball the best, the team that is really efficient on third down, and then when you look at special teams, that always comes into play,” Fleck said.

One crucial area is the Gophers rush offense (ranked No. 2 in Big Ten play, 253 yards/game) vs. the Nittany Lions rush defense (No. 1, 67 yards/game).

“Everybody tries to run the ball against them, that’s for sure,” Fleck said. “Not a lot of success.”

Fleck said the depth of the Gophers offensive line will give them a chance.

“First of all, I believe in our offensive line and we have six starters that are playing at a high level,” he said. “But [Penn State’s] D-line is very talented. They have seven, eight guys that they rotate in. They not only can stop the run, but they can rush the passer, every single one of them, which is very unique.”

Grateful for extension

The people who count at the university made the right move when they extended Fleck’s contract through 2026, with a new salary of $4.6 million per season that would put him around 20th in the country and seventh in the Big Ten in coaches pay.

Any coach who could lead the Gophers to an 8-0 record deserves to be rewarded. Fleck said he believes that success is evidence the program is moving in the right direction.

“Yes, I’m very grateful to President [Joan] Gabel, very thankful to [athletic director] Mark Coyle, our entire administration, our Board of Regents. I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be the coach at the University of Minnesota,” Fleck said. “And just thankful for everybody believing in what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”