"The battle of the unbeatens" has a nice ring to it. Penn State and Minnesota will take the field Saturday to send someone home with a loss. In reality neither team's divisional hopes will die that afternoon, but both could take a big hit to their postseason chances, be it a trip to Indianapolis or better.
But as James Franklin always says, this week is about going 1-0, and Penn State's playoff hopes are a thing of the future not the present.
So, here's what to watch for.
Don't Beat Yourself:
Penn State has turned the ball over seven times this season, which is only bettered by eight teams across the nation. It goes without saying that ball security is key to winning any game, but against a Minnesota team that likes to sit on the ball and run the clock, turning the ball over means one fewer possession in a game that might not have many. Sean Clifford's three interceptions have all largely been inconsequential and none of them have been the result of misreading the defense as much as chuck-and-prays.
All told the Nittany Lions haven't been bit by the turnover bug this year, and keeping things that way is always Step 1 to winning a game on the road against a ranked team. Heck, winning anywhere against anyone.
Off The Field:
As mentioned above, Minnesota likes to hang on to the ball, and getting the Gophers off the field quickly means more possessions, and more chances to score. It also means a fresher defense come the fourth quarter. Penn State won against Michigan while the offense stayed on the field for more than nine minutes of each and every quarter. It didn't end up hurting the Nittany Lions, but against a better offense that kind of workload could spell trouble.
If Minnesota won't make them pay, Indiana or Ohio State might.
Follow Up Punch:
Penn State has, to unfairly summarize things, gotten ahead in the first half and done just enough in the second half to win. That's not to say the Nittany Lions don't deserve to be 8-0, but this group could go from really really good, to elite if they can find a way to land a second punch in the second half. Going up 21-0 or so might be an equation that beats most teams, but everyone has already watched what happens if you give Ohio State an entire half and some momentum to work with. In Penn State's defense, it has scored in the second half, but there is the vague feeling that the opposition is a bounce away from making a blowout a game.
None of this is to say Penn State has to be perfect in the second half, but stepping on your opponent's throat and truly putting a game out of a reach is a skill worth having.
Make Them Believe:
There is a chance, whatever the percentage might be, that Penn State is a much better team than Minnesota. On paper the Nittany Lions have had a much harder schedule and have performed well against much better teams. A win will help the Nittany Lions no matter what, and the margin of victory might not matter in the long run, but nobody has turned down a beating before. If Penn State gets the chance to make a statement, don't be surprised if James Franklin goes for it. Franklin might be a 1-0 guy each week, and not talk about the playoffs to anyone but himself and the wall, but he isn't dumb.
Make your wins look like WINS.
Of course you have to be winning first, and there's no guarantee Minnesota will let that happen.
I tend to think this is one of those things that gets talked about more than it actually matters, but Penn State and Minnesota are actually playing at 11 in the morning, not noon (hello, timezones) so the Nittany Lions will have to wake up just a bit earlier. Is this an advantage? Maybe. But if Penn State is losing by 10 in the third quarter it won't be because of the alarm clock.
A slow start though, or a groggy morning, probably won't help the cause.