Penn State is well aware of what Minnesota’s identity is at this point of the season.
Eight games in, it’s clear the Golden Gophers want to establish the run and dominate the time of possession battle, keeping the opposing offense on the sideline as much as possible.
Minnesota ranks second in the Big Ten in rushing attempts this season and is dead last in passing attempts. It’s a strategy that has been successful. Aside from their 8-0 record, coach P.J. Fleck and company rank third in the conference in first downs per game and second in time of possession.
A big reason why they’ve been able to win games this way is because of their offensive line play.
“It's probably the best offensive line that we have played,” James Franklin said Tuesday. “They are massive, I mean, massive. They have the biggest offensive line I think in the country, college, including the NFL.”
Big offensive lines aren’t uncommon in the Big Ten. If anything, this Minnesota team is exactly what college football fans think of when they think of Big Ten football. A big, tough, hard-nosed team determined to run the football and grind out long scoring drives. It’s a style that Fleck and his staff have embraced.
“[Fleck] wants to dominate time of possession with their offensive line,” Franklin said. “If they get up by a lead early in the game, they are going to start milking the clock already. They are going to try to suffocate you with their offensive line, with their style of offense and with time of possession.”
Outside of the size of the offensive line, Minnesota has also been so successful at establishing the identity it wants because of its discipline on the field. The Gophers have been the least-penalized team in the Big Ten this season in terms of number of penalties.
“With a team like that who runs the ball as much as they do, and the consistency of their offense – not drawing a lot of penalties – you’ve just got to play disciplined,” defensive end Yetur Gross-Matos said. “Everyone’s got to do their job and just to keep that up for four quarters and give our offense a chance to do something.”
If Penn State’s defense is going to have success getting off the field quickly, limiting yardage on first and second down will be crucial. Part of the reason Minnesota has been able to convert on half of its third downs this season – which ranks second in the conference – is the amount of third-and-short situations its offense is able to create.
“They get in situations where it's second and third, third and one, and that could end up having us in a long game,” Gross-Matos said. “Just getting after it on first and second down, we have to put those guys in negative yardage situations or no gain, we have a better chance of getting off the field, because they are great in those situations where is it's short [yardage].”
On the other side of the ball, don’t expect Penn State to change its offensive identity to counter Minnesota’s style of play.
“I think the worst thing that you can do is go into a game like this and try to change your identity and be something that you’re not. So we’re not changing anything,” Franklin said. “Obviously we always want to be efficient on offense and convert on third downs and stay on the field and obviously our defense wants to get off the field. “Part of our responsibility is try to get them out of the style they want to play and make the game go in a way they are not used to playing in. That’s challenging.”