MINNEAPOLIS — All the warmth in this place was found in the home locker room. Jerry Kill had been stuck in the press box for the game, leaving the sideline duties to his staff because of health issues.
By the time the Minnesota coach worked his way down to the locker room following the Golden Gophers’ 24-10 win over Penn State, the party had already started.
With the music blasting and Minnesota’s cameras rolling, Kill squirmed through the crowd and into the middle of the circle before showing off his best dance moves. Not unlike the fellow gopher from Caddyshack.
The players roared. This was Minnesota’s first triumph over Penn State since 2004, and in their exuberance, they actually managed to break the otherwise forgettable Governor’s Victory Bell trophy.
“I always said the biggest goal of our staff is to make sure we could get all the people in the state of Minnesota to feel good about the direction we’re going in and get this thing going,” Kill said. “I’m going to enjoy every single moment of this victory.”
Minnesota is now 8-2. The Nittany Lions, shivering on a gray and windy November day, had little to say after dropping to 5-4. Penn State did not make players available for comment after the game.
Bill O’Brien did the talking for them. The Penn State coach often looked visibly angry at his team’s performance during the game — the 10 points were the fewest scored under O’Brien — but he was composed and reserved afterward.
O’Brien said his issues were with the Lions’ execution and not their effort.
“I think our guys played with great effort. I don’t have any problem with the way they played,” O’Brien said. “I told them in the locker room, number one, we’re going to coach them better. I said we’re going to make sure we put you guys in better position to make plays.
“Number two, I said we’re going to make sure we do everything as a coaching staff to help these seniors go out as winners, because this senior class means a lot to me. … I just feel like there’s a lot of football left. These kids will play hard. I don’t ever doubt the effort these kids play with.”
For the bulk of his two seasons at the helm of the Lions, O’Brien has preached what he calls “complementary football” — all three phases of offense, defense and special teams building off one another.
“Not very good,” O’Brien said. “Not very good. Nope. Uncomplimentary.”
The Lions fumbled the ball away on their first play from scrimmage. They surrendered 24 points in the first half as Minnesota scored on all four possessions, holding the ball for nearly twice as long as Penn State.
When the defense was able to regroup after halftime, it was the offense that couldn’t hold up its end, twice turning it over on downs in Gophers territory. The dagger came when Christian Hackenberg fumbled the snap right at the goal line with 6:40 to play. A touchdown there would at least have given the Lions a shot.
“Yeah, that was going to be a run to the left,” O’Brien said of the play call. “I think he probably came away from center too early on that, it looked like to me.”
Hackenberg had thrown just 10 times in the first three quarters as Penn State kept it on the ground as a way of combating a stiff wind.
Zach Zwinak made the most of his opportunity after a Bill Belton fumble, picking up 150 yards and the Lions’ lone touchdown on 26 carries.
Instead it was the typically run-oriented Gophers who came out with a balanced attack to build a 24-10 halftime lead that stood up.
The early success was thanks mainly to seven third-down conversions keyed by sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson. And when the Lions did manage to get stops, the Gophers simply got it done on fourth down.
Through eight games, Penn State had been the only FBS team in the country who had not allowed a fourth-down conversion (0-for-6), only to see Minnesota pick up fourth-and-2 and fourth-and-9 in lions territory in the first quarter.
Both plays led to touchdowns. And a hole the Lions could never climb out of.
Penn State is now 1-3 away from Beaver Stadium on the season and 0-3 in true road games.
“I don’t know. I don’t care what a lot of point to — I just care about our staff and our team and my family, to be honest with you,” O’Brien said. “But we gotta figure that out. We’re not playing very well on the road, obviously, and we’ve gotta figure it out.”