Ra'Shede Hageman vs. John Urschel battle key in Big Ten game

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Minnesota will be trying to win four consecutive Big Ten games for the first time since 1973 -- yes, 1973, 40 years ago -- when it plays host to Penn State on Saturday.

The Gophers' chances for a victory increase dramatically each time senior defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman has a big game, and a key player for Penn State is going to be senior guard John Urschel.

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Hageman (6-foot-6, 311 pounds) might be the best senior defensive tackle in the nation; NFL Media draft analyst Gil Brandt has Hageman as the No. 5 senior nationally, regardless of position. Urschel is no slouch: He has a legit shot at All-Big Ten honors this season and is No. 63 on Brandt's seniors list.

Penn State coach Bill O'Brien expressed admiration for Hageman in his weekly news conference Tuesday.

"He's an excellent player, one of the better defensive linemen we've gone against," O'Brien said. "He's explosive. Plays with good pad level. He's quick. Seems to me that he's going to have a chance to be a first- or second-day draft pick. He's a very good player."

Urschel won't be the only Penn State lineman who has to deal with Hageman.

"You're going to have to double him," O'Brien said. "You're going to have to get help from places where you don't normally get help from and make sure that you know where he is on every play and try your best not to have him single-blocked all the time because he is a challenge."

Hageman was a national recruit as a tight end out of high school in Minneapolis, and after switching to the defensive line while redshirting as a freshman in 2009, he has made noticeable progress each season. He has added almost 60 pounds while at Minnesota. He is stout against the run and also possesses some pass-rushing skills.

Hageman has 28 tackles, nine tackles for loss, two sacks, six pass breakups, an interception and two blocked kicks this season. He had six sacks last season.

While Penn State will use a variety of double-teams on Hageman, Urschel is going to be key in Penn State's attempts to keep him out of the backfield. Urschel (6-3, 301) is a third-year starter who is an extremely effective run blocker. He is a solid technician and was a first-team All-Big Ten selection last season.

Besides being solid on the field, Urschel is one of the smartest players in the nation. A fifth-year senior, he is working on his second master's degree; he received his undergraduate degree in math in three years. He also received a master's in math and now is working on a master's in math education. Urschel never has received a grade other than an "A" in his time at Penn State.

Urschel taught Trigonometry and Analytic Geometry during the spring 2013 semester and is teaching Integral Vector Calculus this semester. In addition, a paper written by Urschel entitled "Instabilities of the Sun-Jupiter-Asteroid Three Body Problem" was published in 2012 in the journal Celestial Mechanics and Dynamic Astronomy. He has a second paper accepted for publication, "A Space-Time Multigrid Method for the Numerical Valuation of Barrier Options," by the journal Communications in Mathematical Finance.

He told ESPN.com earlier this year that his career goal is to play in the NFL, then get a PhD in math.

Minnesota (7-2) has won three in a row under interim coach Tracy Claeys after coach Jerry Kill opted to take a leave of absence because of his epilepsy. Minnesota is coming off a win at Indiana, a team that beat Penn State by 20. The Golden Gophers haven't won eight games in a season since 2003; they have won as many as eight games just three times since 1967.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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