MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck and his top two assistants have heaped praise on Penn State and the challenges the Nittany Lions present in Saturday, Nov. 9’s marquee matchup.
But there’s also a strong element of, “Hey, we’re pretty good, too.”
The Nittany Lions come in with the respect of College Football Playoff committee, which ranked No. 4 in the race for the official NCAA national championship, in part because Penn State has wins over ranked Iowa and Michigan teams.
The Gophers, meanwhile, slipped from 13th in the Associated Press poll to 17th in the CFP after factoring in the fact Minnesota hasn’t faced a ranked opponent and has one Big Ten victory over a team with a winning record — Illinois (5-4).
Minnesota’s prove-it moment starts with an 11 a.m. kickoff at TCF Bank Stadium. It’s the biggest game between ranked teams on the U’s campus since 1968.
Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan briefly switched off from automaton mode — “It’s the most-important game because it’s the next one” — this week to acknowledge that Saturday’s game “is really exciting for the campus and for the state of Minnesota.”
The Gophers are a seven-point underdog because Penn State presents problems from one to 99.
Nittany Lions’ K.J. Hamler, a dynamic wide receiver who wears jersey No. 1 and will provide matchup issues; defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos, a top potential NFL draft pick who wears No. 99, will be a force coming off the edge.
“We have incredible faith in our guys up front to be able to do their job,” Morgan said. “They are preparing at an elite level, but yeah, their defensive line is incredibly athletic and incredibly talented. It’s just a challenge we will have to be ready for.”
Fleck called the Lions’ defensive line the “best we’ve played … because what they do is they rotate seven, eight guys.”
“And,” he added, “they all have the same type of ability in terms of they’re long, they’re strong and they can go from power to speed and then speed to power. They can stop the run and rush the passer; it doesn’t matter who’s in the game.”
Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who grew up in Pennsylvania and said he probably wore Penn State pajamas as a kid, said, “They create some very big challenges for us, but I feel like we have a pretty good offense, too.”
“Believe me,” he said. “I’ve been doing this a long time and when I watch a defense on film that’s special, I know it. And that defense is special that we are going to take on on Saturday.”
Both the Gophers and Penn State had bye weeks to prepare for the second Big Ten matchup between 8-0 or better teams in the past 45 years. Yet Ciarrocca didn’t spend the extra time drawing up new plays.
“This might surprise you guys a little bit, but we’ve got to do what we do,” Ciarrocca said. “We just have to do what we do better than they do.”
Penn State’s rush defense is the nation’s second-best, allowing 68 yards a game, while its pass defense allows 211 yards a game — 49th in the country. So, maybe the Gophers will have more success in the passing game.
Penn State head coach James Franklin can also dish out compliments — and context.
“I think this is the best wide receivers group that we’ve have faced this year,” he said of Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. “But I’d also make the argument, I don’t know if they have seen defensive backs or a pass rush like we have been.”
Gophers defensive coordinator Joe Rossi also grew up in Pennsylvania but said he was more of a Steelers fan who paid attention to Penn State and Pitt. What he didn’t sidestep was a question about whether the Nittany Lions have the fastest set of skill players Minnesota has faced.
“Yeah, they’ve got three receivers, four receivers that can flat-out roll,” he said. “They can just take the top off the coverage. It’s pretty impressive. You have to be aware of it. Our guys see it and are aware of it. They’ve been educated on it.”
That starts with Hamler, who has eight touchdowns in eight games this season.
When the Gophers have faced game-breaking receivers in previous weeks — Maryland’s Dontay Demus and Purdue’s Rondale Moore — they have assigned a defensive back shadow them. One candidate for the job on Saturday is Franklin’s “huge man-crush,” safety Antoine Winfield Jr.
“He’s playing on a really high level,” Franklin said.
This game’s enticing matchups have a big-picture end game: the Nittany Lions look to prove they belong in one of the CFP’s four playoff spots while the Gophers want to show they were slighted.
When the CFP rankings came out Tuesday, Fleck said, “We’ll talk about that with our team at some point.”
While that sounds like a motivational ploy in the works for Friday night’s team meeting, there likely also will be a message to enjoy the moment.
“They have to understand,” Fleck said Tuesday, “this is a time when you look back five to 10 years down the road, this is what you’re actually going to talk about: You might forget the scores, the records, not necessarily how you played in that game. You’re going to remember the relationships you have with the players, things that happen in our team meetings, practices, camaraderie.”