Minnesota, a team with the Big Ten's worst record and its own set of problems, provides the opposition for Penn State (3-3, 0-2) at TCF Bank Stadium on what is forecast to be a chilly, rainy day.
When examining the Lions' schedule at the start of the season, the thought was they would go into their bye week with a 4-2 mark, losing at Alabama and Iowa and winning the rest.
But no one figured them to be as noncompetitive against the two ranked teams as they were, and then Illinois provided a major jolt of disappointment and touched off a fair amount of grumbling between - and at - the players.
With the 33-13 loss to the Fighting Illini and a long time to digest it, Penn State cannot take what once looked like the easiest game on its schedule for granted. No one wants to call it a must-win, but frankly there is no other option.
"I think we have the attitude that every game is a big one if we want to have a good season," guard Stefen Wisniewski said. "None are more important than any others, but I'd say all of them are equally important."
Paterno just wants to see improvement.
"I'm really looking for us to play better, with more enthusiasm," he said. "We have got to make some plays. We have got to make some things happen for ourselves. Until then, we are going to struggle.
"I'm not looking to get into a situation where we must, got to win this game. We've got to play better, period."
The Golden Gophers (1-6, 0-3) take the field with an interim coach - co-offensive coordinator Jeff Horton, who replaced the fired Tim Brewster on Sunday. It's difficult to tell if their chance at redemption will have them excited or if the emotion of losing their coach will linger.
Paterno was asked this week about how difficult it would be to prepare for a team going through a mid-season change, and he made it clear his concern is with the team on his sideline.
"I think we have got to worry about Penn State," he said. "I think we've got to play better, more consistent. We have got to make some plays. We have not made some plays that would have made us a little bit more competitive, whether it's catching the football, or other things."
Despite giving the appearance that all jobs were up for grabs during the bye week, Paterno did not make any changes other than at positions affected by injury. For example, in the secondary, Drew Astorino moves over from strong safety to take the injured Nick Sukay's free safety spot, and Andrew Dailey replaces Astorino.
The Nittany Lions are thin at defensive end with Jack Crawford (foot) and Eric Latimore (shoulder) out for Saturday. A report in the Harrisburg Patriot-News said defensive tackle Jordan Hill would move over to help the depth at end.
However, three linebackers - starters Mike Mauti and Bani Gbadyu and promising backup Gerald Hodges - are scheduled to return from injuries.
The defense faces a big challenge from Minnesota quarterback Adam Weber, who is 100 yards away from becoming the fifth player in Big Ten history to pass for 10,000 yards in his career. Weber has thrown for 1,662 yards and 16 touchdowns.
"He has one of the stronger arms in the Big Ten," cornerback D'Anton Lynn said. "He's got great receivers. He throws the ball up there and lets them make plays. It's going to be a big test for our defense."
Offensively, the Lions' maligned offensive line may get a chance to help reestablish the team's underachieving ground game. Evan Royster starts the day 93 yards away from breaking Curt Warner's career rushing record at Penn State.
"We were running the ball a lot" in practice, guard Wisniewski said. "We need to find our identity as an offense. We want to run the ball. That'll be a big part of our identity. We need to be committed to doing that if we want to do well."
Penn State at Minnesota
Saturday at 12:01 p.m., TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
TV/Radio: ESPNU; WNTP-AM (990), WNPV-AM (1440).
Records: Penn State, 3-3 overall, 0-2 Big Ten Conference; Minnesota, 1-6, 0-3.
Coaches: Penn State, Joe Paterno (45th season, 397-132-3). Minnesota, Jeff Horton (first season, 0-0).
Series: Penn State is 7-4 against Minnesota, including a 20-0 victory last year at Beaver Stadium, its third straight win in the series. The Golden Gophers last won in 2004, a 16-7 home triumph.
Minnesota outlook: The Golden Gophers are entering the realm of the unknown after Tim Brewster was fired last Sunday after 3½ years as head coach and a 15-30 record. Horton, the team's co-offensive coordinator, has the job for the rest of the season on an interim basis. Minnesota boasts one of the Big Ten's most productive quarterbacks in senior Adam Weber, who is 100 yards away from becoming the fifth signal-caller in conference history to reach 10,000 yards for his career. The Gophers average nearly 239 passing yards and have a decent running game behind Duane Bennett (432 yards). Minnesota hasn't impressed defensively, having allowed 201 rushing yards, 414 total yards and nearly 32 points per game.
Penn State outlook: To put in bluntly, the Nittany Lions are at the crossroads of their season. The way they were manhandled in their previous meeting, a 33-13 home loss two weeks ago to Illinois, left a majority of their fans pessimistic over whether they would win another game this season. As for Saturday, Evan Royster is 93 yards away from breaking Curt Warner's school record for career rushing behind a line that has been inconsistent all season. Rob Bolden has passed for 1,177 yards but has thrown seven interceptions against just four touchdowns. The Lions defense, which was wracked by injuries against Illinois, is much healthier for this game, with linebackers Mike Mauti, Bani Gbadyu and Gerald Hodges all expected back in the lineup.
- Joe Juliano
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or firstname.lastname@example.org.