MINNEAPOLIS – The Minnesota fans waved gold towels and made a lot of noise. Their undefeated Golden Gophers were ready Saturday to make a statement, that they could knock off a team that was good enough to be ranked No. 4 in this week’s first College Football Playoff standings.
In an atmosphere like that, Penn State had no reason to come out poorly and without a sense of urgency. But the Nittany Lions did, and it cost them their undefeated season.
The Lions played neither sharp nor smart football in a dreadful first half. Still, they had a chance to pull the game out late, but Sean Clifford’s third interception of the game ended their hopes with 1 minute, 1 second to play, and the Golden Gophers celebrated with a 31-26 victory.
The final interception, a pass intended for KJ Hamler that was picked off by Jordan Howden in the end zone, severely damaged the playoff hopes for the Nittany Lions (8-1, 5-1 Big Ten). After two kneel-downs, it began a wild rush to the TCF Bank Stadium field by most of the 51,883 in attendance.
The way the Golden Gophers (9-0, 6-0, ranked No. 13 by the AP and No. 17 by the CFP) played the first half, one could argue they were better prepared than Penn State. Clifford, however, didn’t agree.
“That’s one thing I could definitely say. We were ready to play this game,” said the redshirt sophomore, who suffered his first defeat as a starter. “Obviously there’s things that happened in the game that didn’t go our way. We didn’t play as well as we wanted to.
“But I could look back on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday practice. It’s not like we weren’t giving everything we had. I came off the field the same I felt the past eight weeks, with the same confidence. We’ve just got to learn from our mistakes. Get better.”
After going 9-of-21 in the first half, Clifford threw for 208 of his 340 yards in the second, but his three interceptions were as many as he had thrown in his first eight games.
This defeat, however, was shared with many. The Lions secondary played their worst game of the season. Tanner Morgan, running the Gophers’ RPO game to perfection, completed 18-of-20 passes for 339 yards and three touchdowns to a plethora of open receivers. Wideout Rashod Bateman caught seven balls for 203 yards and a score.
Because Morgan got the ball out quickly, the Penn State pass rush was neutralized, getting only one sack.
The Gophers scored on four of their five first-half possessions to take a 24-10 lead late in the second quarter. The Nittany Lions cut the deficit to one score twice but could not come up with the go-ahead one.
They failed to score on two fourth-quarter trips inside the red zone, losing the ball on downs at the Minnesota 5 and again on the final interception. The Golden Gophers entered the game ranked 125th of the 130 FBS teams in red-zone defense.
“We did enough in the second half to have a chance to win the game,” head coach James Franklin said, “but we weren’t able to finish in the red zone. We’ve been great in the red zone. It had not been a strength of theirs, but they did a good job. The first thing you’ve got to do is give them credit.”
After Penn State scored with 4:55 left in the third quarter to cut the deficit to 24-19, Franklin decided to go for two. But a pass from Clifford to Ricky Slade fell a yard short. That decision became costly after the Lions passed on a field goal trailing, 31-19, because it still would have been a two-score game, and Clifford overthrew Hamler on a fourth-down pass in the end zone with 10:38 to play.
Journey Brown, who rushed for 124 yards on 14 carries, scored his second touchdown of the game with 3:49 remaining on a 6-yard run to cut the gap to five. With no timeouts left, the Lions got the ball back with 2:40 left at their own 28, and Clifford hit Jahan Dotson for 49 yards on the third play to the Minnesota 11.
However, on second down from the 10, an 8-yard pass from Clifford to Brown was negated by an offensive pass interference penalty against Daniel George, moving the ball back to the 25. Two plays later, it was over on the interception, although replays showed that the Gophers might have interfered.
Of the late calls and non-calls, Franklin said, “I don’t want to be one of these guys that comes into press conferences and questions calls. Those [officials] have got tough jobs to do.”