MINNEAPOLIS — Minutes after the last second ticked off the game clock, Minnesota’s TCF Bank Field morphed into a sea of burgundy and red. Golden Gophers fans spilled from the stands to join the impromptu party unfolding on the field.
No. 17 Minnesota beat No. 4 Penn State, 31-26, on Saturday to keep the Golden Gophers’ perfect record intact and hand the Nittany Lions their first loss of the season.
Prince’s 1999 blared through TCF Bank Stadium’s speaker system as fans and players melded together on the turf field to soak in the atmosphere and the win.
“The first thing you have to do is give them credit,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “The atmosphere was great. I thought they played really well and executed their plan. We took too long to adjust and settle our guys down on the road in the Big Ten. The second half was a different story, but, obviously it makes it challenging and difficult to start out a game like that against a good opponent.”
Minnesota clutched its five-point lead late in the fourth quarter as it punted to Penn State to set the Nittany Lions up with first-and-10 from their 28 with 2:40 to play. Quarterback Sean Clifford completed a trio of passes on his team’s first three plays of the drive, none bigger than a 49-yarder to receiver Jahan Dotson, who was finally pulled down at the Minnesota 11-yard line.
The Nittany Lions — which grabbed hard-fought wins this season against Pittsburgh, Michigan and Iowa — appeared to be in line for another when Clifford found running back Journey Brown for an 8-yard gain that appeared to give Penn State first-and-goal from the Minnesota 2-yard line.
The play was negated after receiver Daniel George was called for offensive pass interference. The Nittany Lions were then backed up to the 25-yard line after the penalty with time and momentum no longer in their favor.
The Minnesota crowd erupted two plays later when Golden Gophers defensive back Jordan Howden intercepted Clifford in the end zone.
“We have been practicing for these pressure moments since January,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “We are doing everything we said we could do, and not what everyone else was saying.”
The turnover was Clifford’s third of the game. He entered Saturday with three interceptions through Penn State’s first eight contests. Minnesota defensive back Antoine Winfield Jr. recorded two interceptions.
“We lost the turnover battle,” Franklin said. “Three turnovers on the road, that’s not who we’ve been. You turn the ball over on the road against a good opponent, a top-10 opponent, it makes it very challenging to win.”
Both teams entered the early November contest at 8-0 and jockeying for position in their respective divisions. Franklin expected Minnesota’s talented passing game to prove challenging to contain. It lived up to Franklin’s billing.
Golden Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman accumulated 203 yards receiving and one touchdown, while Tyler Johnson was responsible for 104 yards receiving and a score.
Bateman turned his first catch of the afternoon into a 66-yard touchdown reception just under three minutes into the opening quarter. Bateman’s touchdown was the first Penn State allowed this season in the first quarter.
Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan threw for 339 yards and three touchdowns. He finished with 18 completions on 20 attempts. Morgan’s 339 yards passing were the second-most allowed by Penn State’s defense this season. The unit yielded 372 to Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett on Sept. 14.
The Golden Gophers averaged 18.8 yards per completion.
“They were going RPO (run-pass option), which they do,” Franklin said. “They were able to throw the slant or the skinny post off the back side — they do a great job at it. You have to commit so much to stopping the run that you’re one-on-one. Their receivers are really good. We knew that was going to be the challenging matchup the entire game. That’s who they’ve been. That’s what we’ve seen on tape.”
Penn State outgained Minnesota 518-460, was flagged for one fewer penalty, converted 50 percent of its third-down attempts (8-of-16) and the Nittany Lions had four more red-zone trips than the Golden Gophers.
The loss came despite an outstanding effort from Brown, who rushed for a career-high 124 yards and two touchdowns. The Meadville Area Senior High graduate scored on runs of 45 and 6 yards and finished with an 8.9 yards-per-carry average.
The Golden Gophers’ passing offense, however, was potent enough to generate enough points to give Minnesota its ninth win of the season.
“Who would’ve thought going into this game we would’ve led them in rushing and they would’ve led in passing at the half?” Franklin said. “But they were able to be very efficient, (and) stay on schedule offensively. The game played out the way they wanted it to play out.”
Penn State has three games remaining on its regular-season schedule. The Nittany Lions host Indiana next Saturday before traveling to Ohio State on Nov. 23. They’ll conclude the regular season at home on Nov. 30 against Rutgers.
At 5-1 in Big Ten play, Penn State trails Ohio State — No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings — by one game. Franklin said he told his players postgame their season and goals for the year are still in front of them. Penn State offensive lineman Steven Gonzalez said while the loss undoubtedly stings, Nittany Lions players won’t dwell on it and allow it to cloud their focus.
“They played well, and we played our hearts out,” Gonzalez said. “The leaders of the team are just trying to spread the message, ‘Keep our heads up high and we’ll be fine.’”
Elton Hayes covers Penn State for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.