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Minnesota’s big wide receivers to provide a strong test for Penn State secondary

The Golden Gophers' top two receivers are more than 6-feet tall and 200 pounds, and the smaller secondary of the Nittany Lions will have to battle.

Penn State cornerback John Reid intercepts the ball from Buffalo and runs it back for a touchdown in the third quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)
Penn State cornerback John Reid intercepts the ball from Buffalo and runs it back for a touchdown in the third quarter on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. (Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/TNS)Read moreAbby Drey / MCT

Penn State’s defensive backs have matched up with their share of big opposing wide receivers on quite a few occasions this season, but Minnesota’s pass catchers may be in a class by themselves when it comes to size.

The 13th-ranked Golden Gophers, who host the No. 5 Nittany Lions on Saturday in a meeting of 8-0 teams, have two top receivers in 6-foot-2, 205-pound senior Tyler Johnson and 6-2, 210-pound sophomore Rashod Bateman, who can each fight for position, catch the 50-50 balls, and make the big play.

The Lions have an accomplished pair of starting cornerbacks who will be defending in 5-10, 181-pound senior John Reid and 6-foot, 197-pound junior Tariq Castro-Fields. The size discrepancy might be daunting but James Franklin doesn’t appear nervous.

“Obviously, John Reid is not the biggest corner,” the Penn State head coach said Tuesday at his weekly media teleconference of the St. Joseph’s Prep graduate, “but he’s big enough and he’s crafty and he understands the game and he understands the body position and all those types of things.

“That’s going to be a challenge. It’s going to be a challenge with Castro and John and our young corners going against big, physical receivers that are playing at a very high level and playing confident. The quarterback is extremely accurate. He puts the ball in positions to be able to go make plays.”

Johnson, who has 43 catches for 626 yards and seven touchdowns, and Bateman, with 31 receptions for 644 yards and six scores, have caught nearly two-thirds of the completions thrown by senior quarterback Tanner Morgan. Bateman’s 20.8-yard average per catch is 14th in FBS, aided by seven receptions of 25 yards or longer.

The Nittany Lions have matched up with big wide receivers such as Pittsburgh’s Taysir Mack, Purdue’s David Bell, Iowa’s Brandon Smith, Michigan’s Nico Collins, and Michigan State’s Cody White, all of whom stand 6-2 or taller and weigh at least 205 pounds. Smith had the most acrobatic TD catch of any opponent, plucking a pass off the top of Reid’s helmet for a 33-yard score, Iowa’s only touchdown in Penn State’s 17-12 win.

Castro-Fields said it’s just a matter of “playing your own game.”

“They’re big-bodied receivers,” he said Tuesday. “The quarterback does a great job of giving them chances. He’ll buy time for receivers to make plays. So I think they’re a bunch of guys who make great catches and find a way.”

Reid suffered what appeared to be an upper-body injury in the Lions’ win over Michigan State, but Franklin said he expects him to play Saturday.

Penn State has some numbers on its side. It is seventh in the nation in defensive pass efficiency and its 30 sacks rank in the top 10 of FBS.

“I think this is the best [set of] wide receivers that we have faced this year,” Franklin said. “But I’d also make the argument … I don’t know if they have seen defensive backs or a pass rush like we have.

“Their quarterback throws it extremely well. They put people in conflict and then their receivers do a really good job of not only catching the ball, but running after the catch. It’s going to be a challenge, there’s no doubt about it.”

Franklin: I’m happy in Happy Valley

It’s that time of year when Franklin’s name surfaces for other possible head coach openings. A standard one is the Southern California job, where a report on Yahoo! Sports said he would be a leading candidate to replace current head coach Clay Helton.

Franklin said he works very hard at “staying focused on the task at hand,” but added, “We love it here, really enjoy coaching these guys and don’t really see that changing any time soon.”

Franklin also joked that reporters should call Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, another subject of rumors that he might go elsewhere. However, within hours of Franklin saying that, Fleck agreed to a seven-year contract extension that would keep him with the Golden Gophers through the 2026 season.