MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota looked like a mess a mere month ago, with a couple of lopsided losses to start conference play and head coach Jerry Kill on leave to treat his epilepsy.
Now the Golden Gophers have won four straight Big Ten games in the same season for the first time since 1973.
A little confidence can go a long way.
David Cobb had 27 carries for 139 yards and a touchdown, and Minnesota held Penn State scoreless over the final 33-plus minutes to grind out a 24-10 victory on Saturday.
“We’re having fun now. Before it was more of a job. You’d come into work and didn’t know if you were going to win or not,” Cobb said. “But now we expect to win. We’re having fun at practice, having fun during the games. No one’s really uptight about it. The coaches believe in us. We trust each other.”
Philip Nelson had 186 yards and a score on 15-for-24 passing, plus one touchdown and 40 yards on the ground for Minnesota (8-2, 4-2), which hasn’t had this many victories since a 10-3 finish in 2003.
“I didn’t know if we could move quite this quick, but I think that’s a credit to our staff and our players,” said Kill, who has eased back in to the job by supervising from the coaches’ booth instead of being on the sideline. “On the inside — it’s sometimes hard to see on the outside — we knew we were getting better.”
Zach Zwinak scored once and gained a season-high 150 yards on 26 rushes for the Nittany Lions (5-4, 2-3), who have been outscored 131-48 in three Big Ten road games.
“Give Minnesota a lot of credit. They do a great job. They deserve to be 8-2,” coach Bill O’Brien said.
Allen Robinson had seven receptions for 63 yards, giving him 1,106 yards this year to break Bobby Engram’s 18-year-old program record, but the Gophers minimized his impact by double teaming on almost every play.
The Nittany Lions moved the chains only once on nine third downs and once on three fourth downs. Christian Hackenberg, the conference’s leader in yards passing coming into the weekend, went 14 for 25 for 163 yards.
Bill Belton, who last week became the first Penn State player with 200 yards or more in a game since Larry Johnson in 2002, fumbled on the first snap of the game before he was touched. The Gophers recovered at the 29 and kicked a field goal for a quick lead.
Zwinak took over the workload soon after that, and the 240-pound junior did his best to keep Penn State within reach. He powered his way through the line time after time, often twisting past the initial contract for a few extra yards.
The Nittany Lions drove from their 12-yard line to the Minnesota 16 midway through the fourth quarter, but Hackenberg had four straight incompletions to give the ball back. Only one of those throws went toward Robinson, and the last toss was almost intercepted by Derrick Wells.
Then after forcing Peter Mortell’s fourth punt of the second half, Penn State raced back into the red zone for yet another opportunity to turn this into a one-score game. But Hackenberg fumbled the snap on second-and-goal at the 2, and James Manuel recovered with 6:40 left.
“Got to coach them better,” coach Bill O’Brien said.
Minnesota had touchdown drives of 96, 70 and 74 yards in the first half. On third-and-10, Nelson found a wide-open Maxx Williams for a 24-yard score with 17 seconds left before the break to give the Gophers a two-touchdown lead.
The Gophers converted all three fourth downs and are 11 for 14 this season to lead the conference. Behind a line missing two injured starters in center Jon Christenson and left guard Caleb Bak, Cobb chewed up valuable time and space down the stretch.
He had his fourth straight 100-yard rushing game, a first for the Gophers since Amir Pinnix in 2007.
“David Cobb may be our best defensive player if he keeps running the ball like that,” said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who taken over Kill’s sideline duties.
Both Nelson and cornerback Brock Vereen said the Gophers believed in their speed superiority over PennState on each side of the ball, another sign of how this program has progressed under Kill and how the Nittany Lions have slipped since the Joe Paterno heydays.
The Minnesota students chanted “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” as the final seconds of the game ticked down, and the Gophers players sprinted across the field to repossess the Governor’s Victory Bell trophy for the first time since 2004. Penn State won the previous four meetings.
The trophy actually broke apart as the players picked it up in triumph, a humorous moment amid the din, about the only thing that didn’t go right for Minnesota.
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