Minnesota wins field position battle against Penn State

MINNEAPOLIS — With Zach Zwinak chugging between the tackles and keeping Penn State within reach of a comeback, Minnesota’s defense required some aide Saturday.

Cue Peter Mortell.

The Gophers punter twice pinned Penn State inside its own 2-yard line Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Mortell’s wizardry helped keep the Nittany Lions off the scoreboard in the second half and proved the biggest weapon in Minnesota’s field-position victory.

“The field position certainly made a difference,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “You keep them on a long field, and them running the ball took time off that clock now. We’re up there going ‘Hey, get that clock running.'”

Thanks to his team’s first-half offensive efficiency, Mortell’s services weren’t required until after halftime. Long snapper Jake Filkins slid in to down the first one, a booming 39-yarder, and Mortell’s next punt traveled 62 yards before stopping inches short of the Penn State goal line then perplexingly bouncing to the 2.

Mortell booted away four kicks for 184 yards (46 yards per punt) and had three of them downed inside the 20. Thanks largely to his magical leg and Chris Hawthorne’s three touchbacks on five kickoffs, the Nittany Lions started past their own 27-yard line twice; they recovered a Donovahn Jones fumble at the Gophers’ 43 and took over at their own 39 after Mortell punted from the Minnesota 2.

Walking out to 16 mph, swirling gusts didn’t give Mortell the impression he was in for a big afternoon.

“I’ll tell you what, I don’t know if I would’ve anticipated having this good of a day punting with the wind that was out there,” said Mortell, whose 42.5 yards-per-punt average ranks third in the Big Ten. “It was a factor, definitely, but once we went out in pregame and we figured out which direction it was coming from and where we should hit the punts, it got easier and I got more comfortable.”

An average starting field position of its own 22 counterbalanced a stout Penn State ground attack. Zwinak rushed for 150 yards on 26 carries, and the Lions averaged 5.3 yards per rush.

Penn State coach Bill O’Brien deployed a lot of heavy sets. Christian Hackenberg, the conference’s top passer in terms of yardage coming in to the game, threw just 25 times — his second-lowest attempt total this season.

That surprised defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys a bit, but his unit has to improve after allowing four backs to go for more than 100 yards rushing the past three weeks, he said.

Especially with ground-and-pound Wisconsin coming to town after the bye week.

“I wasn’t very happy in the first half with the two tight-end, two-back running game,” Claeys said. “We’ve still got some work to do over the next 10 days, because our next game here at home, we’re gonna see a few snaps of that.”

Cobb continues to cruise: David Cobb further solidified himself as Minnesota’s top ground threat, carrying 27 times for 139 yards and becoming the first Gopher running back since Laurence Maroney to break the century mark in four consecutive games within the same season.

Cobb’s 1-yard touchdown run gave his team a 10-0 lead with 3:08 left in the first quarter and capped a drive that began at the Minnesota 4-yard line. Afterward, he passionately credited the offensive line and receivers for their blocking prowess.

“They want to see me get it just as bad as I want to get it,” Cobb said. “When you have teammates like that that care about you and want to see you do good and are letting you know ‘Hey, let’s go get it, let’s go get it, let’s go get it,’ it just puts your confidence at an all time high.”

Cobb’s legs were integral in his team’s 35:28-24:32 time-of-possession edge. The Gophers chewed up 15:04 of first-half clock on two of their three touchdown-producing drives and gained a total of 195 yards on the ground.

“David Cobb may be our best defensive player, he keeps running the ball like that,” Claeys said. “There’s no better defense than one that’s standing on the boundary watching the game.”

Cobb is now 58 yards away from becoming Minnesota’s first 1,000-yard single-season rusher since 2006.

Limiting Christian: Averaging 253 yards passing coming in to the game, Hackenberg completed 14 of 25 attempts for 163 yards. His only less productive day came earlier in the year against Ohio State, NCAA FBS’ No. 10 total defense.

Saturday, Minnesota zeroed in on the freshman quarterback’s favorite target.

Claeys charged cornerback Eric Murray with shadowing Allen Robinson, who leads the Big Ten in receiving yards per game. Safety Brock Vereen frequently helped over the top, and the pair held Robinson to 63 yards on seven catches.

Claeys said he could count on one hand the times the Gophers didn’t double-team Robinson. Hackenberg also faced consistent front-four pressure, though he was sacked just once.

“Their intermediate passing game is tremendous,” Claeys said. “It’s hard to match up to. … You put pressure on young guys and take away their first option.”

The Lions’ 10 points were a season low.

Murray tallied a game-high eight solo tackles and had a tipped-to-himself interception negated by an offside penalty in the second quarter.

“He’s a guy that going in, you need to know where he is at all times,” Vereen said of Robinson. “As a DB, you don’t always get acknowledged if the ball doesn’t go to your guy, but I will say that Eric had the best game of any defensive player this entire year.”

Broken bell: Tommy Olson’s teammates had his back when asked who broke the Governors’ Victory Bell, which Minnesota took back from Penn State for the first time since 2004. Video footage that quickly went viral showed the Gophers center reaching into the postgame fracas to touch the hardware and ripping the bell from its base.

But Cobb, Mortell, Vereen, quarterback Philip Nelson and tight end Maxx Williams just laughed when the subject was brought up.

“I think it just kind of fell apart when we picked it up,” Williams said.

Said Nelson, who rushed for 40 yards and threw for 186 more: “That thing got passed around so much that it just kind of got lost.”

Mortell was more clandestine: “That’s a no comment.”

After falling to Iowa and Michigan earlier in the year, the Gophers improved to 1-2 in trophy games this year. They’ll have a chance for one more, Paul Bunyan’s Axe, when they host Wisconsin on Nov. 23.

Olson shouldn’t catch too much flack. The junior switched to center this season and replaced starter Jon Christenson, who suffered a season-ending leg injury last Saturday against Indiana.

In other offensive line news, right guard Caleb Bak didn’t suit up Saturday due to a concussion, according to the Gophers’ radio broadcast. Foster Bush started in his place.

Fourth-down frenzy: Minnesota went 3-for-3 on fourth downs Saturday and is now 11-for-14 on the year.

Nelson found Williams for a 24-yard strike on fourth-and-2 in the first quarter and hit Jones for 11 yards on fourth-and-8 in the second. Both conversions led to touchdowns.

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