The Gophers say they sense a pivotal moment in their football program’s history coming on Saturday, a chance to propel themselves to national prominence by spoiling Penn State’s unbeaten season. In other words, they’re hoping this weekend’s game does for them what their last meeting did for the Nittany Lions.
James Franklin had led Penn State to a pair of underwhelming 7-6 seasons and stood only 2-2 coming into the Oct. 1, 2016, matchup with the 3-0 Gophers. Minnesota took a 13-3 halftime lead in a dreary Beaver Stadium drizzle, and the sellout crowd was restless. There was a palpable sense that Franklin’s job was already in jeopardy.
And then? The Gophers witnessed the rebirth of a college football powerhouse.
“From that game and from that year, moving forward, if you look at the coaches that have been doing it since then, there are very few that have won more games than we have as a program since that point,” Franklin said of the Nittany Lions, who rallied to beat Minnesota 29-26 in overtime, then proceeded to reel off a 37-7 record since that day. “I’m very proud of that.”
With good reason. Perhaps the turnaround that day was inevitable, given that two-time Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year Saquon Barkley was carrying the ball and Big Ten championship game MVP Trace McSorley was throwing it. But the mark of a great program isn’t joy-riding to a New Year’s Day bowl with the occasional superstars, it’s sustaining their success once they’re gone.
That’s what Frankin has done this season.
“The brand is back,” declares Kirk Herbstreit, ESPN’s top college football analyst. Penn State is 8-0, already has beaten Michigan for only the second time in Franklin’s tenure, and on Tuesday was ranked fourth by the College Football Playoff committee, ahead of defending champ Clemson.
There really isn’t any secret to Franklin’s methods: He’s become one of the most adept recruiters in the country. The Nittany Lions have ranked with Ohio State in the Big Ten in attracting top-tier talent the past couple of seasons, according to 247Sports.com, and among the top dozen schools in the nation. While his team enjoyed a week off last Saturday, Franklin said he was in Washington, D.C. and Florida, trying to capitalize on this year’s success with next year’s class.
“They can replace great players. When they lose a guy like Saquon Barkley,” who went No. 2 in the NFL draft in 2018, Herbstreit said, “[Franklin] can still go out and do what you need to do to get that next wave of talent.”
One surprise, perhaps: That next wave is largely on defense. The Nittany Lions’ top recruit in each of the past three classes has been a defender, led by sophomore linebacker Micah Parsons, Penn State’s leading tackler and one of the top 10 recruits in the country in 2018. As a result, while their offense has been effective this season, especially in the red zone, defense — especially by the play of the front seven — has kept them unbeaten.
“Their defense right now is national championship caliber,” Herbstreit said. “They’re right there, as good as anybody in the country.”
The defensive line, for instance, “is the best we’ve played by far,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “What they do is, they rotate seven, eight guys. And they all have the same type of ability — they’re long, they’re strong and they can go from power to speed, and then speed to power.”
That line, anchored by defensive end and sacks leader Yetur Gross-Matos, is particularly adept at run-stopping, setting up an intriguing matchup in the near-freezing Minnesota cold expected Saturday. The Nittany Lions allow only 68.4 yards per game on the ground, or about one-third of the Gophers’ 204.5-yard average. Heck, Minnesota senior Rodney Smith averages 111.1 yards by himself, a number no back has come close to reaching against the Nittany Lions this year.
Maybe that’s why it’s the Gophers’ passing game that has Franklin most curious. Penn State ranks 10th in the conference in passing yards allowed, and while that number is partly inflated because opponents are so discouraged from running, the secondary will be challenged by Tanner Morgan and Minnesota’s receiving corps.
“This is the best [group of] wide receivers we have faced this year,” Franklin said, returning the compliment. “But I’d also make the argument — I don’t know if they have seen defensive backs or a pass rush like we have. … It’s going to be a challenge, there’s no doubt about it.”