Minnesota Hangs on to Top Penn State 31-26 in Battle of Unbeatens
November 9, 2019

In a much-awaited matchup for some skeptical fans, still waiting to see if the Minnesota Gophers are for real, the Gophers beat fourth-ranked, and previously unbeaten, Penn State 31-26 before a sellout crowd that stormed the field and joined the players in getting the Victory Bell, the traveling trophies between the schools.

Both teams were 8-0 coming into the game, and Nittany Lions coach James Franklin admitted, “We started poorly—interceptions, blown coverge, missed tackles.”

The pattern was set early, Penn State wide receiver Justin Shorter dropping a pass from Sean Clifford. After a 17-yard scramble by Clifford, the quarterback underthrew Shorter, and Antoine Winfield intercepted at the Minnesota 5. The Gophers took only five plays to capitalize, the final one a 66-yard touchdown pass from Tanner Morgan to Rashod Bateman, who was all alone on the right sideline. Bateman took the pass around the Penn State 43, evaded a tackle from safety Garrett Taylor, who rushed to cover, and ran down the sideline to give Minnesota a 7-0 lead.

“We have to commit to stopping the run, it leaves us one on one in the secondary,” said Franklin, adding that Morgan was efficient with the run-pass option, giving the Lions little chance to pressure him.

The Nittany Lions quickly countered, Clifford hitting tight-end Freiermuth for a 20 yard gain on third down, and Journey Brown breaking through on the next play for a 45-yard touchdown run.

Penn State had held opponents to 9.2 points per game but couldn’t stop the Gophers. From the 13, on the first play from scrimmage, Bateman was wide-open again. He took Morgan’s pass at the 30 and turned it into a 28-yard gain, to the Minnesota 41. Chris Autman-Bell capped the 87-yard drive with a 22-yard touchdown reception, dodging Penn State tacklers on his way to the end zone.

The Nittany Lions got a field goal back, but their troubles continued in the second quarter. Clifford misfired frequently, including a short second-down pass to Brown from the Minnesota 25. Blitzed and underpressure from Mariano Sori-Martin, Clifford lofted pass to K. J. Hamler. Winfield intercepted at the 7 and returns 32 yards to the 39. It was the seventh interception this season for Winfield, tying the Minnesota record set by Jeff Wright in 1970.

The Gophers needed only three plays to cover the distance to the end zone, Morgan connecting with Tyler Johnson for a 38-yard touchdown to up the lead to 21-10.

Both teams got field goals, and Minnesota had a 24-13 lead at halftime. The Gophers had 321 yards from scrimmage in the half to 280 for Penn State.

When Clifford was sacked at his own 2 on Penn State’s first possession, the Gophers got the ball at their 48 after a punt. All seemed in control, but on the next play Shannon Brooks fumbled, and the Lions’ Shaka Toney recovered at midfield.

Penn State capitalized with a touchdown, Clifford going to tight-end Nick Bowers for a 10-yard score. Franklin opted for a two-point conversion, which failed, and left the Lions trailing 24-19 with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. Franklin said the failed conversion didn’t factor into the final outcome, an assertion challenged by reporters in the post-game press conference.

After Minnesota increased the lead to 31-19 on a one-yard run by Seth Green on the first play of the fourth quarter, the Lions drove inside the Minnesota 5 and was unsuccessful on a fourth-down attempt, a drive that might have ended with a field goal had the score been a point closer.

Penn State later scored on a six-yard run by Brown with just over four minutes left. The Lions, down 31-26, got the ball back at their own 28 with 2:40 left. Clifford was on target with passes to Freiermuth and Dotson to get to the Penn State 40 and then hit Dotson, who appeared to have a shot at the end zone. Jordan Howden was able to run him down at the 11 with just under two minutes on the clock. A second-down pass to Brown to the 2 was wiped out when Daniel George was called for offensive pass interference, moving the ball back to the 25. Clifford threw an incompletion to George and then attempted a third-down pass to Hemler in the end zone that was intercepted by Howden, sealing the Minnesota victory.

“We did enough in the second have to have a chance to win the game,” said Franklin. “We just took too long to adjust. When you lose the turnover battle on the road against a good opponent, it makes it challenging.”

Minnesota coach P. J. Fleck said, “We have been practicing for these pressure moments since January. We are doing everything we said we could do and not what everyone else was saying. Whether it was Antoine’s picks, the last play with Jordan Howden, look at how well our wide receivers played, the pass protection, the way we were able to run the ball.

“We did what we had to do to find a way to win the game against one heck of a football team on the other side.”

Bateman finished the game with 7 catches for 203 yards, the first Minnesota receiver to top 200 in 23 years. Johnson also had 7 catches, for 104 yards. Morgan was outstanding, completing 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and 3 touchdowns. Clifford recovered from early struggles to complete 23 of 43 for 340 yards, but his interceptions were costly. Brown led all rushers with 124 yards on 14 carries.

With its second-half rallies, the Nittany Lions ended up with more yards from scrimmage, 518 to 460, but the turnovers made the difference.

Minnesota is 9-0 for the first time since 1904 and goes on the road, to Iowa and Northwestern, before coming back to TCF Bank Stadium for its regular-season finale, against Wisconsin.

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