MINNEAPOLIS — By all accounts, Christian Hackenberg is having a solid first season as Penn State's quarterback.
It's easier to remember he's a freshman, though, when the opponent shuts down his best receiver.
Hackenberg, who entered the weekend leading the Big Ten in yards passing, went 14 for 25 for 163 yards with no touchdowns and one lost fumble as the Nittany Lions lost 24-10 at Minnesota on Saturday.
A week after a dramatic overtime win over Illinois during which Hackenberg threw for 240 yards, Bill Belton ran for 201 yards and Allen Robinson had 165 yards receiving, the Nittany Lions (5-4, 2-3) struggled against Minnesota.
Zach Zwinak led Penn State with a season-high 150 yards rushing and scored his team's lone touchdown. But Belton had only seven carries for 47 yards, and Robinson caught seven passes for a quiet 63 yards while being double teamed all afternoon. He still managed to push his season total to 1,106 yards and break Bobby Engram's 18-year-old program record.
That wasn't much consolation, though.
"Records are great, but we could care less about records," said Penn State coach Bill O'Brien, who declined to make any players available for questions to the media. "We played hard today, and we weren't able to get him the ball enough."
The Gophers held Penn State scoreless over the final 33-plus minutes for their fourth straight victory. The Nittany Lions moved the chains only once on nine third downs and once on three fourth downs.
Penn State looked out of sorts from the start. 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 in the backfield after that. The 240-pound junior pushed his way through the line time after time, often twisting past the initial contract for a few extra yards. Even trailing by two touchdowns for the entire second half, the Nittany Lions kept sending Zwinak at a Gophers defense that has been vulnerable to powerful running backs. O'Brien said Belton's fumble was not the reason he went with Zwinak for most of the afternoon.
"We just play the guys that are gaining yards, you guys ask me that every week," the coach said. "We're going to hand it to whoever is standing back there."
The problem for Penn State was the combination of Minnesota's tight pass coverage and Hackenberg's inaccuracy under pressure.
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.
"It still comes down to he's young," Minnesota defensive coordinator Tracey Claeys said of Hackenberg. "He's a great quarterback. He's going to do nothing but get better. Leads the Big Ten in passing. But you put pressure on young guys and take away their first option, and we didn't let somebody else have a career day."
On defense, the Nittany Lions allowed touchdown drives of 96, 70 and 74 yards in the first half. On third-and-10, Philip 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.
Nelson had 186 yards and a score on 15-for-24 passing, plus one touchdown and 40 yards on the ground. David Cobb led the Gophers with 139 yards rushing and a touchdown on 27 carries.
The Nittany Lions have lost their last three road games by a combined score of 131-48.
"I don't care what a lot of people point to. I just care about our staff, my team and my family to tell you the truth," O'Brien said, adding: "We're not playing very well on the road and we've got to figure it out."
As the final seconds of the game ticked down, 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.
"I feel like there's a lot of football left," O'Brien said. "These kids will play hard. I don't ever doubt the effort these kids put in."