Nittany Lions fall into gopher holes


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MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota coach Jerry Kill's voice is pure heartland, the way you would imagine a "Lake Wobegon Days" character to sound. A little bit of his native Kansas upbringing comes through in his words and even more Illinois and Minnesota, his adopted places of employment.

So you could hear the humble elation in Kill's voice when he was asked about his Golden Gophers' controlled, clock-sapping style of play.

"That's what you have to do to win football games," Kill said, "certainly in the Midwest."

He knew it. He knew exactly what he and his team had done en route to their fourth win in a row. They had owned Penn State in a classically dreary Big Ten Conference game, defeating the Nittany Lions, 24-10, at TCF Bank Stadium.

Willingly or not, Penn State (5-4, 2-3) has been pulled into this brand of football two games in a row. The kind where mistakes are magnified, you don't score many points, your field position always is terrible, the wind swirls and the sky reaches a level of grayness incapable of being captured by even Crayola.

A year ago, Penn State seemed to be above such things or, at the least, able to chart a divergent course. The Nittany Lions scored 27 points a game in Big Ten play in 2012 with a pass-happy offense. In the past three games, Penn State has averaged 13.7 points in regulation and been outgained through the air by each opponent.

And now this. Ten points is the lowest output under coach Bill O'Brien. The halftime score was 24-10, too. The leaky defense made successful adjustments. The offense didn't.

Listen to O'Brien for more than a few minutes, and he will bring up complementary football. To believe in complementary football is to not only believe that success can be achieved through balance -- good offense and good defense -- but to go a step further, a nearly karmic step. On complementary football teams, good defense comes full circle, sparking good offense because it puts the offense in the right position and vice versa.

Saturday was the opposite for Penn State. When the defense began stopping Minnesota, the offense failed to capitalize.

"Un-complementary," O'Brien said.

The offense had three major opportunities in the second half and failed on each. First, it didn't score on a short field after Malcolm Willis recovered a Minnesota fumble. Then, a drive stalled on the Minnesota 16 after four consecutive incomplete passes. Lastly, after having first-and-goal at the 2, quarterback Christian Hackenberg fumbled the snap, and Minnesota recovered.

That play effectively ended the game, capping an odd second half in which the clock kept ticking forward, even though it appeared both teams were taking football back to when forward passes were considered witchcraft.

The punters were the third-quarter stars. Minnesota's Peter Mortell put the ball inside the5 twice, Penn State's Alex Butterworth once. There were more challenges on the placement of the ball after a punt (two) than points (zero) and completed Minnesota passes (one).

The three punts inside the 5 equaled Penn State's completed passes. Wide receiver Allen Robinson caught seven passes for 63 yards Saturday, less than half his 130-yard average. Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys said they double-teamed Robinson on most plays and had an extra player spying on him when they weren't.

Penn State chose not to let any players speak to the media after the game. O'Brien was terse but not irritated, offering his usual responses: He said the effort was there, he had to coach better and that plenty of season is left.

About throwing the ball only 10 times in the first three quarters, O'Brien said he trusted the running game, which gained 190 yards on the strength of Zach Zwinak and because of the bad weather, mainly the wind. In choosing this path, the Nittany Lions accepted the common form of offense for the Big Ten.

Minnesota strayed a little further from that formula. It threw for 165 yards in the first half. Kill was asked how they could do this in such harsh conditions. His answer sounded Midwestern savvy. He knew the wind was so high that it barely affected passes.

"As long as you didn't get the ball way up," he said, "you could throw the ball a little bit."

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


Mark Dent: mdent@post-gazette.com, 412-439-3791 and Twitter @mdent05 First Published November 9, 2013 1:34 PM

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