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Penn State at Minnesota: Five things to watch

The Nittany Lions' strong defense will need to keep the Golden Gophers from controlling the football with their rushing attack.

Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons celebrating a tackle against Pitt in September.
Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons celebrating a tackle against Pitt in September.Read moreAbby Drey / MCT

Penn State will play at Minnesota at noon Saturday in a battle of 8-0 teams.

Here are things to watch:

Controlling the game

Minnesota wants to control the football and the clock. The Golden Gophers are sixth in the nation with nearly 35 minutes in time of possession per game, six minutes longer than the Nittany Lions’ average.

The Lions like deep shots and quick scores. The thought in this game, however, is that Sean Clifford and company must sustain drives with their running attack to keep the ball away from Minnesota. The fact that freshman Noah Cain is expected back after suffering an undisclosed injury against Michigan State helps.

But to hear James Franklin tell it, “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.”

Still, the Lions’ average time of possession in Big Ten games is more than 30 minutes, and their third-down conversion rate is better (47.3%) in conference play than overall (40.4%), so longer drives are possible.

Lions defense digging in

Penn State’s front seven is playing as well as any in the country. Sparked by linebacker Micah Parsons, the unit is second in the nation against the rush and its 1.99-yard average per rush allowed is the lowest in FBS.

The test will come Saturday against a Minnesota offense that is second in the Big Ten averaging 204.5 yards on the ground. Fifth-year senior Rodney Smith has rushed for 889 yards and seven touchdowns. He and his running mates will be operating behind an offensive line anchored by 6-foot-9, 400-pound tackle Daniel Faelele.

The Lions need to get push up front and force senior quarterback Tanner Morgan to throw. Morgan is not reluctant to go deep. His three favorite wide receivers average 17.1 yards per catch and have caught 17 TD passes, meaning the Lions’ pass rush must make him uncomfortable.

Keeping their poise

Even though the Nittany Lions had their game well in hand two weeks ago at Michigan State, they inexplicably lost poise and discipline in the second half. They were assessed 104 yards on nine penalties, including three unsportsmanlike-conduct calls, one resulting in the ejection and suspension for Saturday of starting defensive tackle Antonio Shelton.

The Golden Gophers are the third least-penalized team (4.0 per game) in the nation and average 20 fewer penalty yards than the Lions. This game isn’t going to be an easy one, and Penn State cannot help Minnesota sustain drives and aid its opponent’s field position with silly flags.

Gillikin doing his thing

It was quite an October for senior punter Blake Gillikin: two Big Ten special teams player-of-the-week awards with 10 of his 15 punts against Iowa and Michigan State downed inside the 20, six of them inside the 10. Field position will be of the utmost importance Saturday, and Gillikin can play a huge role pinning the Gophers deep in their own territory and allowing the defense to do its work.

Reacting to the ‘rare air’

Penn State offensive line coach Matt Limegrover referred to the matchup as “a clash of style and expectations,” with the Lions seeking another 1-0 week and the Golden Gophers in “kind of rare air” — their first 8-0 record since 1941, prompting high expectations from their fans. This is by far the Gophers’ toughest opponent to date. How will they react?

Penn State at Minnesota

Saturday, noon, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis

TV/Radio: 6ABC; WPHT-AM (1210), WNPV-AM (1440)

Records: Penn State, 8-0, 5-0 Big Ten, ranked No. 5 in AP poll, No. 4 in College Football Playoff ranking; Minnesota, 8-0, 5-0, No. 13 AP, No. 17 CFP.

Coaches: Penn State, James Franklin (sixth season, 53-21; 77-36 overall). Minnesota, P.J. Fleck (third season, 20-13; 50-35 overall).

Series: Penn State holds a 9-5 advantage. In their most recent meeting in 2016, the Nittany Lions defeated the Golden Gophers, 29-26, on Saquon Barkley’s 25-yard run in overtime, sparking a nine-game winning streak capped by a Big Ten championship and a Rose Bowl bid.