Minnesota might not be a pushover once again for Penn State

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State’s game Saturday against Minnesota is the middle of the sweet spot of the Nittany Lions’ football schedule — consecutive games against Illinois, Minnesota and Purdue.

Though Minnesota is improved this year and could finish above .500 in the conference for the first time since 2003, the Gophers, Purdue and Illinois are usually the Big Ten’s doormats. They are just about the only kind of Big Ten team Penn State has been able to defeat the past several years.

In the four full seasons since 2008, when Penn State won the Big Ten title and made the Rose Bowl, the Nittany Lions have been 22-10 in conference play. The combined winning percentage of the teams they’ve defeated has been .320. In this time frame, Penn State has two victories against Big Ten teams that finished the respective season above .500 in conference play.

A common theme arises: Penn State is feasting on the lesser teams while losing to the better teams, aside from the sporadic victory against an above-.500 team, like Michigan this year or Northwestern last year.

Much of the talk around the program this week centered on the grimness of Penn State’s victory against Illinois.

One prevailing message on the Internet was whether it was the worst victory in school history; in reality, it was just common.

The belief that Penn State should be rolling sub-.500 teams and winning against the best in the Big Ten, at least in the past four years, is based on false expectations. Though Penn State’s average winning margin in Big Ten victories in the past four full seasons has been 14 points — more than the seven against Illinois — the opponents in those victories have been similarly mediocre.

“We cherish every win,” coach Bill O’Brien said after the Illinois game. “We cherish every single win here at Penn State.”

O’Brien spoke highly of Minnesota in his news conference Tuesday. At one point he asked if Minnesota had played Ohio State, hinting that the Gophers might be able to give the undefeated Buckeyes a test.

Looking at the way Penn State has generally performed in recent years, the Minnesota of old won’t be a test for Penn State. But if the Gophers are as good as they’ve played the past three games, primed for an above-.500 finish in the Big Ten, then this sweet spot of the schedule won’t be as easy as it has looked on paper.

Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05.

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