Penn State seeks better start at streaking Minnesota

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien yells to his players during a game against Illinois. (Abby Drey/AP/Centre Daily Times)

Penn State coach Bill O’Brien would like to see his team get off to a better start on the road when the Nittany Lions travel to streaking Minnesota for a Big Ten game on Saturday.

The Nittany Lions (5-3 overall, 2-2 Big Ten), who are coming off an overtime win against Illinois, have not won a conference game away from Beaver Stadium this year, losing 44-24 at Indiana and 63-14 at fourth-ranked Ohio State. The Lions failed to score in the first quarter of both contests.

“Obviously we haven’t played as well on the road,” O’Brien said Tuesday at his weekly teleconference. “It’s hard to pinpoint why. Hopefully that changes. I think we’ve practiced well. I think we’ve been prepared for these games on the road.

“I know these guys came out (Monday) and practiced really well. I think we’ll string some good practices together and be ready to go on Saturday. So hopefully we can change the tide of not playing well on the road right now.”

Junior Bill Belton sparked the Lions’ 24-17 victory over Illinois with 201 rushing yards on 36 carries and was named Big Ten co-offensive player of the week. O’Brien said he is “watching (Belton’s) contact in practice” after the player’s heavy work day but added that the former Winslow Township (N.J.) High star would be ready for Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers (7-2, 3-2) have won three straight games, knocking off Northwestern and Indiana on the road and then-No. 23 Nebraska at home. They used a late touchdown and a fumble recovery on defense in the final minute to defeat the Hoosiers, 42-39, last week.

Minnesota’s rushing attack has accounted for better than 221 yards per game, 20th in the nation. Their passing game came alive last week when sophomore Philip Nelson threw for 298 yards and four touchdowns.

O’Brien said the fact that the Gophers have almost a five-minute advantage in average time of possession over their opponents means that he’ll have to monitor the Nittany Lions’ offensive tempo and not go full-speed all the time.

“You can’t totally change what you do, but you’d better make sure that you’re not just playing at warp speed the whole game,” he said. “If you score in a minute and 50 seconds, that’s OK, but your defense has only been the bench for a minute and 50 seconds so you’d better make sure you keep scoring.

“That’s hard to do against Minnesota. They’re a good defense. So we’ve got to mix tempo and make sure we give our defense a break, and try to do the best we can to win the time of possession on our side.”

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who has epilepsy, is taking time away from his duties after having undergone a seizure that forced him to miss the team’s Oct. 5 game against Michigan. Defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys is the acting head coach.

“That’s got to be really difficult and I’ve got a lot of respect for what (Claeys) has done,” O’Brien said. “I don’t know how you even prepare for that. There’s a great bunch of assistants with him that buy into their own roles. That’s a staff that’s been together and they understand what Jerry Kill wants.”

--Joe Juliano