Gophers Off to Best Start Since 2003

Nov. 9, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - The tone to Saturday's 24-10 win against Penn State was set early on. In fact, it can be argued that it was established on the first play from scrimmage.

Minnesota won the opening coin toss, and elected to defer until the second half, which gave the Nittany Lions the ball to start the game. On Penn State's first play, a rushing attempt to Bill Belton, the handoff exchange went awry and the ball bounced forward to the PSU 29, where it was recovered by Minnesota's Eric Murray.

Three plays later, Chris Hawthorne split the uprights on a 45-yard field goal, and Minnesota had a lead it would not relinquish the remainder of the afternoon. More importantly, it gave Minnesota momentum and an early boost of confidence against Penn State.

The Gophers jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the first quarter, built a 24-10 halftime advantage, and then battled to a scoreless tie in the second half for the victory.

Minnesota used the same formula that has been working in recent weeks - controlling the ball with more than a 10-minute advantage in time of possession, getting a 100-yard rushing performance from junior David Cobb (139 yards) for the fourth game in a row, and holding an opponent well below its season average on offense.

Penn State entered the game averaging 436.5 yards of total offense, but was limited to just 353 yards by the Minnesota defense. Led by freshman quarterback Christian Hackenberg, PSU's passing offense entered the game ranked second in the B1G with an average of 272.4 yards, but the Gophers held him to his second-lowest total (163 yards) this season.

"To go in against a high profile offense and to hold them to 10 points is huge," Gophers cornerback Brock Vereen said. "The best defense is a good offense, and that second quarter stretch, really the first half all together, the whole offense was out there. Whenever a good offense is on the field, you have a good chance to win. I credit that to our good offense."

What Vereen is referring to are two lengthy scoring drives by Minnesota's offense -- the first covering 15 plays and 96 yards in 8:10 to give the Gophers a 10-0 lead, and the second covering 70 yards in 13 plays and using 6:54 to put Minnesota up 17-7. Overall, Minnesota controlled the ball for 19 minutes and 20 seconds in the first half.

In a season of milestones, Minnesota established some more Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. The win against the Nittany Lions was Minnesota's fourth-consecutive Big Ten victory, marking the first time since 1973 that the Gophers have won four-straight conference games in the same season.

The win also allowed the Gophers to sprint across the field and reclaim the Governor's Victory Bell for the first time since 2004, when Minnesota posted a 16-7 win at the Metrodome.

Minnesota, which improved to 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten, is off to its best start since 2003. That season, head coach Glen Mason's Gophers also were 8-2 overall and 4-2 in the Big Ten heading into a November home game against Wisconsin, which Minnesota won, 37-34.

This year's team is hoping to follow a similar path, and the Gophers now have two weeks to prepare for the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe against the Badgers. Wisconsin has won the past nine meetings against Minnesota, a streak the Gophers hope to end.

"It's (the Wisconsin game) the most important game, because it's the next game," Minnesota starting quarterback Philip Nelson said. "It's a big rivalry, and we are really looking forward to it. But right now, we have the bye week and we need to get healthy. That's what is on our mind right now."

Two weeks ago, Minnesota snapped a 16-game skid against Nebraska, defeating the Cornhuskers for the first time since 1960. Today's win against PSU snapped a four-game losing streak against the Nittany Lions, giving the Gophers a trophy they hadn't possessed in almost 10 years.

"We're having fun now. Before it was more of a job coming to work and you didn't know if you were going to win or not, but now we expect to win," Cobb said. "We're having fun during practice. We're having fun during the games. The coaches believe in us. We trust each other as players. I trust the man next to me, he trusts me. We're just out there having fun and getting the job done."

--Michael Molde, Athletic Communications Assistant