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November 7, 2019

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If Pete Najarian is correct, it’s going to be a happy Saturday for University of Minnesota football fans. The Minneapolis native, former U linebacker, TV personality and financial markets guru told Sports Headliners he is predicting “something like 21-17” in favor of Minnesota over Penn State in the much anticipated matchup of the two 8-0 Big Ten teams. Odds-makers have made the Nittany Lions about a touchdown favorite for the nationally televised (ABC) game at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Gophers are 11-1 since firing defensive coordinator Robb Smith following last season’s 55-31 loss to lowly Illinois. Joe Rossi, Smith’s successor, has a unit that ranks No. 13 nationally in defensive yards allowed per game, 283.8. “The improvement we’ve seen there is why we’re a better team than we were last year,” Najarian said.

Najarian, who played professionally for the Tampa Bay Bucs, also praised the offense with its many playmakers including running backs and receivers. The Gophers have outscored their last four Big Ten opponents 168 to 41.

The offense has been balanced between the run and pass, with the Gophers averaging 38.4 points per game, No. 14 in the country. Minnesota is sixth nationally in time of possession, and long stretches of time on the field by the Gopher offense will keep the ball away from a Nittany Lions offense averaging 38.5 points per game.

Najarian played for the Gophers for four seasons, from 1981-1985. His last two years the great Lou Holtz was the head coach. In the two seasons before Holtz arrived, the Gophers were 1-17 in Big Ten games. No wonder Holtz used to publicly preach, “Expect a miracle.” Then he turned Minnesota into a winning team before becoming head coach at Notre Dame.

Gophers head coach P.J. Fleck and his assistants earned the miracle tag from Najarian when asked about the staff and what Minnesota has accomplished going into Saturday’s game. The Gophers have won 10 consecutive games, the school’s longest winning streak since an 18-game run from 1939-42. Minnesota is also tied for the third-longest active win streak among FBS programs, trailing only Clemson and Ohio State. For the first time since 1935-36, the Gophers have won four consecutive Big Ten games by at least 20 points.

“I think Fleck and the coaching staff have done a miraculous job,” Najarian said. “… It starts with recruiting and I think when you look at the talent levels we’ve got at the University of Minnesota right now we are comparable to so many of the schools, not only just in the Big Ten, but in the top 25 in the country. I would say we have many positions (on offense and defense), that we can easily compete with just about anybody in the country.”

Najarian, who said “spectacular” is an appropriate word to describe the coaching and player development by Fleck and his assistants, has so much enthusiasm, affection and loyalty for his alma mater that he was ready to exit his lucrative career to become Minnesota’s athletic director. He was a candidate for the AD job before Mark Coyle was hired in 2016.

Fleck recently pitched ESPN’s College GameDay on coming to Minneapolis for Saturday’s game, but instead the popular Saturday show opted for the top five showdown between Alabama and LSU in Tuscaloosa. The program always features a celebrity prognosticator to join Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit and Desmond Howard in predicting the winner of the more important games across the country. When and if GameDay comes to Minneapolis, would Najarian accept an invitation to represent his home town and alma mater?

“I absolutely would,” he answered.

Najarian said others have already made the suggestion. He welcomes the potential opportunity, which would include reconnecting with ESPN, the network that once employed him as a studio personality and also a color commentator on college football games.

“There’s a lot of people there (at ESPN) that I know pretty well,” Najarian said. “It would be fun to hang out with those guys and throw out some picks, especially being a stat guy. I have to throw out picks all the time (for investing). I might as well do it on football.”

Golden Gophers Notes

In the spring game Fleck used 6-foot-9, 400-pound offensive tackle Daniel Faalele as a ball carrier near the goal line, and he scored a touchdown. I asked Fleck months ago when that play might be called in a game this fall. He said, “When no one is expecting it.”

Another surprise for the Nittany Lions on Saturday? Well, Wildcat quarterback Seth Green, a power running specialist, hasn’t attempted a pass this season. As a wide receiver he hasn’t caught a pass either.

Tanner Morgan

Regular quarterback Tanner Morgan lines up as a receiver when Green directs the Wildcat formation. Morgan has yet to be targeted for a reception.

Penn State will be in the four-team College Football Playoffs if the Nittany Lions maintain the No. 4 spot in the rankings announced Tuesday night. The Nittany Lions are behind Ohio State, LSU and Alabama, but ahead of undefeated and defending national champion Clemson.

The Gophers are No. 17 in the CFP rankings, four spots higher than their No. 13 ranking in the Associated Press poll of top 25 teams. The Gophers’ five Big Ten wins have come against teams with a combined league record of 8-22.

The Nittany Lions, ranked No. 5 by the A.P., have quality wins over top-20 ranked Iowa and Michigan.

It’s possible the U will announce Minnesota’s first sellout home crowd since 2015 on Saturday. Official capacity at the stadium is 50,805. Temps could hit 40 degrees during the game, perhaps the warmest weather of the week. If the game were played at climate-controlled U.S. Bank Stadium, attendance likely would be 60,000 or more.

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David Shama

David Shama is a former sports editor and columnist with local publications. His writing and reporting experiences include covering the Minnesota Vikings, Minnesota Twins, Minnesota Timberwolves and Minnesota Gophers. Shama’s career experiences also include sports marketing. He is the former Marketing Director of the Minnesota North Stars of the NHL. He is also the former Marketing Director of the United States Tennis Association’s Northern Section. A native of Minneapolis, Shama has been part of the community his entire life. He is a graduate of the University of Minnesota where he majored in journalism. He also has a Master’s degree in education from the University of St. Thomas. He was a member of the Governor’s NBA’s Task Force to help create interest in bringing pro basketball to town in the 1980s.

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