Gophers report card: Minnesota handily defeats Penn State

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team continues to win, and has turned into one of the best stories in college football this season. With a convincing 24-10 win over Penn State on Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers now have eight wins for the first time since 2003 as they improved to 8-2 — two wins better than last year’s mark with two games remaining on the schedule. Here are the grades from Saturday’s victory:

Running offense: A-minus

Junior running back David Cobb continued his strong play on Saturday by rushing for 139 yards, his fourth straight game of over 100 yards on the ground. Cobb also scored from one yard out in the first quarter for Minnesota’s first touchdown of the day. After Saturday’s effort, Cobb is now just 58 yards shy of 1,000 yards and has a good shot at becoming Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2006. The Gophers need more from their backup running backs, though; Donnell Kirkwood gained just five yards on three carries. Meanwhile, quarterback Philip Nelson was able to gain 40 yards on 12 carries, including a 6-yard touchdown run in the second quarter to give Minnesota a 17-7 lead. The one negative of the Gophers’ running game was a fumble by freshman Donovahn Jones, who turned the ball over after a six-yard loss.

Passing offense: B-plus

After a career game against Indiana one week earlier, Nelson didn’t put up the gaudy numbers Saturday against Penn State. He did, however, do enough through the air to move the ball for Minnesota. Nelson finished 15-for-24 for 186 yards and a touchdown (and did not throw an interception). In doing so, he spread the ball around to seven different receivers, all seven of which had at least one catch of more than 10 yards. Tight end Maxx Williams caught Nelson’s lone touchdown pass on a 24-yard strike with 17 seconds remaining in the first half to send Minnesota into the locker room on a high note. Derrick Engel and Cobb each had three catches, with Engel’s 27-yard catch the longest of the day for Minnesota.

Running defense: B

While Bill Belton was coming off a season-high 201 yards last week against Illinois, it was tailback Zach Zwinak who instead had a big game against the Gophers. Zwinak had a season-high 150 yards on 26 carries and had a 6-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, his first touchdown in the Big Ten this year. Belton still found success on the ground although he had just seven carries but picked up 47 yards. All in all, though, Penn State’s running game wasn’t much of a factor, as Zwinak had just two rushes of 10 yards or more. Belton had a fumble on the first play of the game that limited his carries the rest of the way and helped set the tone for the game, as Minnesota recovered at PSU’s 29-yard line and later turned the fumble into a field goal.

Passing defense: A

Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson entered Saturday’s game as the Big Ten’s top receiver. He finished the day with seven catches for 63 yards, well below his season average. Minnesota also kept Robinson out of the end zone, and while he did set the Penn State single-season record for most receiving yards in a season, it came in a frustrating loss. Nittany Lions quarterback Christian Hackenberg had played far more mature than his freshman label would indicate, but Minnesota limited him to 163 yards on 14-of-25 passing with zero passing touchdowns. The Gophers have held their own against some of the top passing teams in the Big Ten, and that was certainly the case Saturday against Penn State.

Special teams: A

Gophers punter Peter Mortell was named the Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week last week, and he could win the award in back-to-back weeks. Mortell played a big part in helping Minnesota win the field position battle. He had one punt downed at the 1-yard line and had another downed at Penn State’s 2-yard line. Mortell’s four punts went for an average of 46.0 yards, with three of them downed in the end zone. Meanwhile, kicker Chris Hawthorne converted his only field goal attempt, a 45-yarder that opened the scoring in the first quarter. Antonio Johnson had a nice 29-yard kickoff return.

Overall: A

This was a game Minnesota should have won, and the Gophers had no problem taking care of visiting Penn State. With the victory, Minnesota improves to 8-2 entering the bye week. It marks the first time since 1973 that the Gophers won four consecutive Big Ten games in one season, as this came after wins against Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana. Minnesota’s next game is against rival Wisconsin on Nov. 23, and the Badgers could also be 8-2 with a win next weekend, setting up perhaps the most anticipated battle for Paul Bunyan’s Axe in quite some time.

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