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It’s not that Penn State lost to Minnesota, it’s how the Nittany Lions lost

The Nittany Lions looked less prepared than the Golden Gophers and did not execute as well, and their first 2019 defeat left them on the fringe of the College Football Playoff conversation.

Minnesota Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman (13) celebrated his first quarter touchdown against Penn State.
Minnesota Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman (13) celebrated his first quarter touchdown against Penn State.Read moreAaron Lavinsky / MCT

MINNEAPOLIS – Penn State’s undefeated season is over and its College Football Playoff hopes have gone from front and center to the fringes of consideration.

The Nittany Lions lost to the better team Saturday in their 31-26 loss to Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium but the way they were outplayed for three quarters was a stunning reversal of their play in their previous eight games. Even their frantic comeback in the fourth quarter was short-circuited by inefficiency in the red zone.

What happened?

Digging an early hole

The Nittany Lions’ first play was a dropped pass by Justin Shorter. Their third play was an interception that set up a 95-yard touchdown drive. The Golden Gophers scored a pair of TDs in the first quarter – two more than the Lions had allowed in their first eight games – and put points on the board in four of their five first-half drives. The visitors did not adjust well to the new wrinkles that the Golden Gophers installed in their two weeks between games, including an extra offensive lineman and a scheme of mostly max protection. Penn State experienced the same bye week that its opponent did, but the confident Gophers certainly appeared more prepared. The Lions never led and played from behind for the final 49 ½ minutes.

Red zone inefficiency

After a season full of success in the red zone, Penn State left its magic back in Happy Valley. Entering the game with a touchdown percentage of 77.4% (24 touchdowns on 31 chances), the Lions were just two of six (33%) Saturday. Three fourth-quarter drives inside the 20 produced one TD (with the play clock reading :00 before the snap) and two goose-eggs – the first a turnover on downs at the Minnesota 5, the second on an end-zone interception that clinched the game for the Gophers. Further insult was the fact that Minnesota had allowed 32 TDs in 40 red-zone opportunities (80%) coming in, 125th in FBS out of 130 teams. Yes, some of the play-calling was suspect, but the offense’s execution frequently wasn’t crisp.

Holes in the secondary

The Penn State secondary yielded 339 yards passing to Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan on only 20 passes (almost 17 yards per attempt). Open receivers frolicked throughout the Lions’ dreadful play in the defensive backfield. The Golden Gophers ran a flea flicker where Morgan had his choice of two wide-open targets. Rashod Bateman caught passes of 66, 28, 22, 22 and 36 yards – 203 on seven catches overall. With Minnesota backed up in the fourth quarter at its own 4 and the Nittany Lions desperately needing a stop, cornerback John Reid was flagged for pass interference on third-and-11, allowing the Golden Gophers to run more time off the clock. It was one bad play after another for much of the day from the Nittany Lions’ once-trustworthy DBs.

Few standout wide receivers

The lack of production from some of Penn State’s receivers matches that of the Eagles. The Lions have a tight end, Pat Freiermuth, who catches almost everything. They have speedy wideout KJ Hamler and an almost perfect match on the other side in Jahan Dotson, who was forgotten for most of Saturday. The trio Saturday combined for 17 catches, 27 targets and 290 receiving yards. The wonder is if Sean Clifford trusts his other receivers. Justin Shorter dropped Clifford’s first pass and later saw a sure TD throw go off his fingers. Daniel George caught one ball in five targets and was called for a costly offensive pass interference penalty. The Lions opted to throw two fade routes in the end zone in the fourth quarter to the 5-foot-9 Hamler, both incomplete, when they had the 6-4 Shorter and the 6-2 George. The trust appears to be in short supply.

Time is running out

Head coach James Franklin looked for some positivity in his postgame remarks, saying “all of our goals are still out there ahead of us.” But those goals now are more difficult to achieve. The Nittany Lions must bounce back at Beaver Stadium to face 7-2 Indiana, which was on a bye this week, before visiting undefeated Ohio State, its last chance to stay in the playoff picture. Franklin wants the pain of his team’s first 2019 defeat to be used as fuel moving forward but Saturday’s result, and the way that it happened, might take some extra time to overcome.