Any doubt that Minnesota is evolving into a balanced offense was put to rest in a 24-10 victory over Penn State in Minneapolis on Saturday afternoon.
The Nittany Lions stacked the box early against the Gophers, dared them to pass -- and then watched Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson respond in a big way. The sophomore was 12-of-18 for 165 yards by halftime, helped his team score on its first four drives and then watched tailback David Cobb take over the second half.
This marked the Gophers' fourth consecutive victory in Big Ten play, the first time that occurred since 1973, about two decades before Penn State joined the conference. The Golden Gophers are now 8-2 -- one of the more unlikely eight-win teams playing in a BCS conference -- and they haven't been eliminated from the Big Ten title race just yet.
Minnesota earned the Governor's Victory Bell and. More importantly, the Gophers are continuing to earn respect in the Big Ten.
Where the game was won: Through the air. As unlikely as it might have sounded before the game, Minnesota's run-heavy offense decided to pass early and often against a struggling Penn State secondary. Statistically, it was the second-best passing performance of the season for Minnesota. The running game took off in the second half, but Minnesota did most of its damage during that pass-happy first half, scoring 24 points.
The game was over when ... : Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg fumbled a snap on the Minnesota 1-yard line with less than seven minutes left to play. Minnesota linebacker James Manuel fell on the ball, and that put an end to Penn State's comeback hopes. Trailing by 14, a touchdown would have given them life. But that fumble put the game out of reach.
What it means for Minnesota: The Golden Gophers are making their case to be considered one of the better teams in the Big Ten. They're still behind the likes of Ohio State and Michigan State, but Minnesota and Wisconsin certainly seem to be the best teams behind them. Minnesota should find itself in a decent bowl game; this is the best team it has fielded in at least the last decade.
What it means for Penn State: Complementary football, something Bill O'Brien stresses, isn't coming easily for Penn State (5-4, 2-3). The offense played OK in the first half, while the defense was dominated. And those roles were reversed in the second half -- the defense shut out Minnesota, but the offense didn't score. Expectations this season were around seven or eight wins, and that's far from a guarantee now.