Penn State enters Saturday's game against undefeated Minnesota looking to knock off a team that ranks second in the Big Ten on third down (50% conversion rate) and third in the nation in total time of possession. A potent combination for a Gopher squad trying to pull off the upset at home.
But stopping the Gophers isn't as simple as what happens on third down, it means getting Minnesota off schedule and that's something easier said than done. So far this season Minnesota has faced just 22 third downs of more than 10 yards, second best in the Big Ten behind only Wisconsin.
"They have been unbelievable on first down," Penn State coach James Franklin said on Tuesday. "You look at their numbers on third down; their numbers on third down are great because their numbers on first down are great. They have very little negative yardage plays, tackles for loss, sacks, things like that, they stay on schedule and are very efficient."
When it comes to moving the chains, the Gophers do a lot of that work on second down as well. Through eight games this season, the Gophers have completed 44 passes on 60 attempts on second down, and 30 of those completions have resulted in a first down. On the ground Minnesota is not quite as effective, but 45 of its 131 second down rush attempts have resulted in a first down.
For comparison Penn State has completed 55 passes on second down, 38 of those going for a first down. On the ground 27 of the Nittany Lions' 102 second down running plays have resulted in moving the chains.
There is another wrinkle with the Gophers, an offense that averages a time of possession of just over 35 minutes. Against Maryland, Minnesota sat on the ball for just over 42 minutes. While time of possession isn't always a winning trait, one thing remains inherently true for Penn State's offense: it can't score if it doesn't have the ball.
"Defense has a responsibility to get off the field with turnovers and three-and-outs and offense has responsibility to stay on the field and convert," Franklin said. "Because obviously this is the style they want to play, and part of our responsibility is try to get them out of the style they want to play and make the game go in a way they are not used to playing in. That's challenging."
"[Minnesota] wants to dominate time of possession with their offensive line. Literally, if they get up by a lead early in the game, they are going to start milking the clock already. They are going to try to suffocate you with their offensive line, with their style of offense and with time of possession."
Penn State has led the time of possession in three of its five Big Ten games so far this season, the only major deficit, Michigan holding on to the ball for nearly 38 minutes during the Nittany Lions' victory.
So the message is clear, and obvious, but important all the same: Get the Gophers off the field.