Minnesota program back on the rise

MINNEAPOLIS – Minnesota was a football powerhouse 100 years ago, and its stadium features signs boasting of seven national titles and 18 Big Ten championships.

That was a lifetime ago, though, and recent history hasn’t been all that kind to the Golden Gophers. Saturday, however, they picked up their fourth consecutive Big Ten victory, the program’s longest streak since 1973. The other three wins came against Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana.

“I believe people who work hard eventually get rewarded, especially if they keep fighting,” Minnesota acting head coach Tracy Claeys said. “We got one win, and then we believed in ourselves. Then we won on the road, and then we defeated a brand name like Nebraska.”

The winning streak has come with Claeys taking over the day-to-day operations from Jerry Kill, who’s on medical leave because of epileptic seizures and watched the game from the press box.

“We played as hard as we could today, and at the end of the day, that is what really matters,” Kill said of the 24-10 win over Penn State.

The Gophers looked very well prepared to take advantage of PSU’s struggling defense as quarterback Philip Nelson picked apart the middle of the field in the first half. Nelson threw for 186 yards, completing 15-of-24, and Minnesota’s strong running game gained 195 yards on 46 carries. David Cobb led the way with 139 yards on 27 carries.

Minnesota was 7-of-8 on fourth downs entering the game and converted two big ones in the first half to build its 24-10 lead.

The Gophers also got exceptional play from their special teams. Punter Peter Mortell pinned the Lions at the 1 and 2 on kicks in the third quarter, both times getting superb efforts from the coverage unit downing the ball before it reached the end zone.

Minnesota couldn’t stop PSU running back Zach Zwinak, but it kept quarterback Christian Hackenberg in check well enough as he completed 14-of-25 for 163 yards and no scores.

Minnesota will have a tough time extending its winning streak or even winning another game this season. The Gophers are off next week then have Wisconsin and Michigan State to wrap up the regular season, and if they go 8-4 likely will get a tough opponent in their bowl game.

“I’m going to enjoy every single moment of this victory,” Kill said when asked about the upcoming Wisconsin game. “All of us coaches are the same in that we’ll go home and sit in front of the TV and start to think about the next game. The good news is we have a couple weeks to prepare, and we need this bye week.”

No PSU players

available to media

Penn State fans hoping to get postgame reaction from the players won’t find any since, for the first time in his tenure, Bill O’Brien did not allow any players to talk to the media after the game.

O’Brien said he had three messages for his players after the game, with the first two about coaching them better and helping the seniors go out as winners. He kept the third message private, saying, “I’m not going to tell you what I said number three.”

Zwinak excels while Belton sits

Zwinak had a monster day with 150 yards on 26 carries, one week after Bill Belton gained 201 yards on 36 carries against Illinois. But Belton fumbled on the first play from scrimmage and quickly gave way to Zwinak, although Belton did gain 47 yards on only seven carries.

“I didn’t take Bill out because of the fumble,” O’Brien said. “It’s never good when you fumble on the first play of the game. But I do think that Zach was running well today. There’s differences in their skill set, but it’s not like one guy is light years ahead of the other guy. So we just play the guys that are gaining yards.”

Road woes continue

Penn State is now 0-3 on the road after losing to Indiana and Ohio State. The season-opening win over Syracuse at the Meadowlands was a neutral-site game, not a true road game.

The Lions did at least give a better effort on the road this time after losing by 20 to the Hoosiers and by 49 to the Buckeyes. O’Brien got a little annoyed when asked about the road struggles and how some fans point to that.

“I don’t care what a lot of people point to,” he said. “I just care about our staff and our team and my family, to be honest with you. But we’ve got to figure that out. We’re not playing very well on the road, obviously, and we’ve got to figure it out.”

Robinson breaks receiving record

Allen Robinson caught seven passes for 63 yards and set Penn State’s single-season record for receiving yards. He now has 1,106 yards in just nine games, surpassing the previous mark of 1,084 set by Bobby Engram in 1995.

“Records are great, but we could care less about records,” O’Brien said before later adding, “We’ve got to continue to find ways to get him the ball.”

Robinson suffered what appeared to be a minor left shoulder injury early in the third quarter and received treatment on the sideline, but he returned on the next series. O’Brien said he wasn’t aware of any injury to his standout receiver.

Hackenberg struggles in red zone

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg has had struggles in the red zone this season, and they continued Saturday as he was only 1-of-5 passing and also fumbled at the goal line. Hackenberg came up empty on four throws from the Minnesota 16-yard line early in the fourth quarter as PSU turned it over on downs, then he fumbled on second-and-goal at the 1 on the next series.

“Red zone’s a tough area for a young guy,” O’Brien said. “There are tighter windows, things happen faster down there. We had some plays down there and just didn’t connect. We’ll definitely work on it and try to be better next week.”

Hull shakes off early injury

Linebacker Mike Hull got banged up with a right knee injury in the first quarter, and at first it appeared to be serious, particularly since Hull had injured that knee earlier this season.

“The way he was face down on the turf there, I was nervous about that for the kid,” O’Brien said.

Hull walked off on his own, quickly overcame the injury and got back in action. He finished with a team-high nine tackles.

Mauti on sideline

Former PSU linebacker standout Michael Mauti was on the sideline cheering on his former teammates Saturday. Mauti now plays for the Minnesota Vikings and spoke to the team Friday night.

“It’s great to see Mike,” O’Brien said. “He was a great player here, and he’s doing a great job for the Vikings. I’m sure it meant a lot to our guys to have him there.”