STATE COLLEGE — No. 5 Penn State head coach James Franklin is well-aware of the task his Nittany Lions face this weekend when they travel to No. 13 Minnesota.
The undefeated Golden Gophers have averaged a gaudy 42 points per game over the last four games, and much of that success can be attributed to a hulking offensive line.
“It’s probably the best offensive line that we have played — they are massive, I mean, massive,” Franklin said during Tuesday’s press conference. “The right tackle is 6-foot-9, 400 pounds and not heavy, if that’s even possible to say. The guy next to him I think is 6-foot-5, 350 pounds. They have the biggest offensive line I think in the country, college, including the NFL.”
After starting the season with four wins by a combined 20 points, the P.J. Fleck-led Golden Gophers have joined the upper echelon of the Big Ten and FBS in a number of statistical categories.
One of these data points Franklin and his staff will be focused on disrupting this weekend is time of possession. Minnesota ranks sixth in the nation in the category, possessing the football for 34 minutes per contest.
“(Fleck) wants to dominate time of possession with their offensive line,” Franklin said. “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.”
One way to prevent that from happening, Franklin said, is for the Nittany Lions to be efficient on offense, convert their third-down attempts and sustain prolonged drives. Penn State this season has converted 42 of its 104 (.404 percent) third-down attempts.
Penn State hopes to counter any attempts at a ball-control game from Minnesota by continuing to capitalize on its red-zone opportunities. The Nittany Lions have scored on 29 of their 31 trips to the red zone (24 touchdowns and five field goals).
“I feel like that gives a lot of confidence because the defense is always guessing,” said Penn State running back and Meadville Area Senior High alumnus Journey Brown. “You never know what we are going to do because we do really well.”
Franklin said Penn State’s offensive success against the Golden Gophers will come with help from its defense. That means, keeping Minnesota’s offense off the field and the football out of its playmakers’ hands.
“You know, I think a lot of times, it’s funny when you talk about time of possession,” Franklin said. “Everybody talks about the offense, especially when you run a spread, no-huddle style offense. But it’s both.”
The Nittany Lions’ defense this weekend will be without starting defensive tackle Antonio Shelton. Last week, Franklin announced Shelton would serve a one-game suspension for his unsportsmanlike penalty against Michigan State. Shelton appeared to spit in the direction of a Spartans player late in the fourth quarter.
Last week, Franklin said defensive tackle Robert Windsor, a starter, and reserve defensive tackle P.J. Mustipher will receive an increase in reps due to Shelton’s absence. On Tuesday, he said Fred Hansard and Judge Culpepper, both reserves, will receive reps at defensive tackle.
“I think you’ll see probably P.J. and Rob probably get between 15 more reps a game,” Franklin said. “Could be 20, probably 15 more reps in this game. We think that they can handle that. Obviously, you’ll see a little bit more Fred and a little bit more Judge and some of the other guys, too.”
Franklin also updated the status of cornerback John Reid and running back Noah Cain. Both players sustained injuries against Michigan State on Oct. 26 but are expected to play against Minnesota.
“We’re expecting them to go,” Franklin said.
Elton Hayes covers Penn State for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @EHDC12.