Ohio State has won all six of its games this season, is coming off a 23-point win, remains the frontrunner to win the Big Ten and is among the favorites to make the College Football Playoff.
If you didn’t already know that, you might not guess that based on most of the conversation that has surrounded the Buckeyes this week.
Although the Buckeyes ultimately beat Indiana by three-plus touchdowns at Ohio Stadium last Saturday, they got off to a slow start – trailing the Hoosiers midway through the second quarter – and struggled on defense before finally pulling away in the fourth quarter of their 49-26 win.
Because of that, most of the conversation about the Buckeyes this week hasn’t focused on the fact that they ultimately won by a comfortable margin – or that Dwayne Haskins tied the school record with six passing touchdowns, and nearly broke the school record for passing yards – but on their continued issues on defense, specifically with defending the pass and allowing big plays, as well as in the run game, specifically in short-yardage situations, on offense.
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Yet the Buckeyes will still have an opportunity to improve to 7-0, and bring themselves one step closer to having a chance to accomplish their bigger goals for the season, when they host Minnesota in their fifth home game of the season and seventh game overall at Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
That’s reason for the Buckeyes to be happy about what they’ve accomplished so far this season, even though they know they still must improve.
“Thank God we’re 6-0, and what’s better than that than trying to go 7-0,” Ohio State cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson said this week. “But there are times when you don’t play well, and you feel like that.”
While Ohio State might not be playing up to both external expectations and its own expectations in some areas, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck is expecting the No. 3-ranked Buckeyes to challenge his team in every area as the Golden Gophers prepare to face them this week.
“The biggest challenges are everywhere,” Fleck said when asked what he thought the biggest challenges of playing Ohio State on Saturday would be. “They’re so skillful everywhere. Offensively, defensively, special teams. They’ve got depth everywhere. They’re big, they’re strong, they’re fast.”
Halfway through its regular season, no one has found a way to beat Ohio State yet this year, and there’s been no bigger reason for that than the play of first-year starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins, who completed 33 passes – also tying a school record – for 455 yards, the second-highest total in school history, against Indiana last Saturday.
For the season, Haskins has now completed 142 passes for 1,919 yards and 25 touchdowns. That puts him already well over halfway toward breaking Ohio State’s single-season records for passing yards (3,330 by Joe Germaine in 1998), completions (240 by J.T. Barrett in 2017) and passing touchdowns (35 by J.T. Barrett in 2017) – and makes him a focal point in preparation for any Ohio State opponent.
“They’re just so good in the pass game,” Fleck said. “The quarterback’s playing at an extremely high level.”
Fleck also said that the Buckeyes are “very, very efficient” when they run the ball, and believes their offense is “incredibly balanced” between the passing and running games. Over the past two games, however, Ohio State’s running game hasn’t been very efficient, averaging just 3.2 yards per carry in both games.
The Buckeyes have two top-notch running backs in J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber and a massive offensive line in front of them, but they haven’t been performing up to their potential, particularly in short-yardage situations. The Buckeyes have converted on 19 of 26 third- and fourth-down situations of three yards or less this year, which is just over 73 percent, but Ohio State coach Urban Meyer made clear during his weekly radio show Thursday that that’s not good enough.
“80-60-40 is what should happen. And that’s 80 (percent) on short yardage, when it’s 3rd-and-short, and then 60 (percent) 3rd-and-medium, and then 3rd-and-long, now you start pushing the 40 and 30 percent,” Meyer said. “So we have to be much higher.”
Meyer says the Buckeyes’ substandard performance in short-yardage situations has been in part because of defenses stacking the box against them, but he says it’s on Ohio State to make that change in one or multiple ways.
“The issue is that everybody’s packed in there on us. So somehow we have to get out of that,” Meyer said. “And there’s a variety of ways to do that. One’s throwing the ball a little bit more. One’s trying to get on the edge a little bit more.”
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State is looking for substantial improvement from its defense, particularly in the passing game after giving up a season-high 322 yards and three touchdowns to Peyton Ramsey and Indiana last week. Overall, the Buckeyes have given up more than 400 yards of offense and at least 26 points to three of their last four opponents, also including Penn State and TCU.
Most of the blame for the Buckeyes’ struggles has fallen on the secondary – the second safety spot alongside Jordan Fuller has been a weakness all season, and the cornerbacks also had a rough day against Indiana – and the linebackers, but Meyer said this week that he also wants to see more out of the Buckeyes’ pass-rush, even though they rank second in the nation with 22 sacks.
“Obviously when you lose a guy like (Nick) Bosa, that’s going to be a tremendous hit,” Meyer said of the pass-rush. “But the other guys are working really hard. It’s not what we expect, but the guys are getting close.
“50 percent of pass defense is pass-rush, and the other half is coverage. So I think we got to better at both.”
The Buckeyes will be striving for improved defensive play on Saturday, but they could have to do so without three of their defensive starters. Defensive end Jonathon Cooper and linebacker Malik Harrison have been in concussion protocol this week after leaving last weekend’s game early, and it hasn’t been confirmed whether either will be available this weekend. Bosa also remains out as he recovers from core muscle surgery.
Jashon Cornell will likely start opposite Chase Young at defensive end if Cooper cannot play, while Justin Hilliard is the likely candidate to start opposite Pete Werner at outside linebacker if Harrison is unable to go.
“The biggest challenges are everywhere. They’re so skillful everywhere.”– Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck on playing Ohio State
The Golden Gophers enter this week’s game with a 3-2 overall record, but a 0-2 record in Big Ten play after losing each of their last two games against Maryland, 42-13 on Sept. 22, and at Iowa, 48-31 last weekend.
|121.1||41st||PASS EFFICIENCY DEFENSE||116.7||35th|
Minnesota’s strength this season has been its defense, which ranks 21st nationally in both yards allowed per game (324.2) and plays of 20-plus-yards allowed (18), and Meyer repeatedly praised that defense when asked about the Gophers this week.
“They’re a top-20 defense,” Meyer said. “They’re one of the best teams in the country in (not) giving up big plays. They keep it all in front of them. And we’re kind of a big-play offense. And so, that’s the biggest challenge I see right now.”
Meyer also described that defense as “outstanding” this week, but it hasn’t been outstanding in the last two games. The Gophers gave up 315 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in their loss to Maryland, then gave up 314 passing yards and four passing touchdowns against Iowa, showing they can be equally vulnerable in both areas.
They’ve been hurt by the loss of Antoine Winfield Jr., the son of legendary Ohio State cornerback Antoine Winfield and their top safety, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the loss to Maryland.
“When you give up 90 points in the last two games … I wouldn’t consider it as an outstanding (defense) right now, but I would say that I think our front seven’s playing really well,” Fleck said. “We knew we’d be young after Antoine Winfield Jr. got hurt, we knew we’d have to really get younger on the back end, and I think that’s what hurt us against Iowa was our back end. So I think our front seven’s doing a great job, got to continue to improve in the back end and really have it all come together.”
The star of the Gophers’ front seven is Carter Coughlin, a defensive end who was also recruited heavily by Ohio State and who leads Minnesota with five sacks. Coughlin is tied for the team lead in tackles for loss (6.5) with linebacker Blake Cashman, who also leads the Gophers with 34 total tackles, while middle linebacker Thomas Barber is also a key player for the Minnesota defense, with 33 total tackles so far this year.
Offensively, the Gophers are defined by their youth, as they are set to start six offensive players on Saturday who are in their first playing seasons, including true freshman quarterback Zack Annexstad, who won the job in preseason camp despite arriving in the Twin Cities as a walk-on. Annexstad has thrown for 924 yards and eight touchdowns this season, but he’s only completed 52.4 percent of his pass attempts and thrown five interceptions in the Gophers’ last two games.
Tyler Johnson is the Gophers’ top wide receiver, with 28 catches for 402 yards and six touchdowns already this season, but they also have two emerging young playmakers at the position in true freshman Rashod Bateman (27 catches for 257 yards and two touchdowns) and redshirt freshman Chris Autman-Bell (14 catches for 220 yards).
Minnesota is without its top running back, Rodney Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury in the Gophers’ second game of the season against Fresno State. Shannon Brooks, the Gophers’ No. 2 running back, is also out after tearing his ACL this spring. Without them, the Gophers have averaged just 3.5 yards per carry this season. But the Buckeyes still view the Gophers, whose top running backs are now redshirt freshman Mohamed Ibrahim and true freshman Bryce Williams, as a strong, physical running team.
“They’re really a downhill, vertical push team,” said defensive line coach Larry Johnson. “So up front, it’s going to be a very physical game. Probably the most physical game we’ve played.”
In addition to the running backs, the Gophers also regularly use 6-foot-4, 240-pound redshirt sophomore Seth Green – who technically converted from quarterback to wide receiver this season, but hasn’t caught a single pass – as a runner as a Wildcat quarterback, and he has scored five of Minnesota’s six rushing touchdowns this season, with 93 yards gained on 28 carries.
Up front, the Gophers have a big offensive line that will be especially massive this week at right tackle, where 6-foot-9, 400-pound true freshman Daniel Faalele is set to make his first start on Saturday. Faalele’s size alone is certainly enough to capture an opponent’s attention, and Johnson said he has coached his defensive ends not to allow Faalele to lock his hands on them.
“He is a big guy, so we’re going to make him move his feet, see how athletic how he can be in movement and space,” Johnson said. “So that’s one thing we’re going to try to do. But we got to make sure we disengage pretty quickly.”
Saturday’s game will be Minnesota’s first game against Ohio State since Fleck, who began his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in 2006, became the Gophers’ head coach last year. But while Fleck is able to draw from his past experiences to help his team preparing for playing at Ohio Stadium on Saturday, he says he wants his team to get past the magnitude of where it is playing when they arrive in Columbus on Friday, so that they can focus solely on playing their best football on Saturday.
“We have 33 freshmen on our two-deep, so it’s going to be the biggest stadium they’ve ever seen in their entire life,” Fleck said. “It is a tremendous place to play. The fans are just incredibly loyal. And it’s one of those historic venues that you want to play in. But we’re going to get that out of the way on Friday.”
In order for his team to have a chance to pull the upset in Columbus on Saturday, Fleck believes the Gophers will have to win the turnover battle, continue to limit big plays while making big plays of their own and execute without making avoidable mistakes.
“We’ve got to be able to take care of the football, we’ve got to get takeaways as best as we possibly can, we’ve got to find a way to get some explosive plays and to limit their explosive plays as best as we possibly can, and we got to tackle really well,” Fleck said.
How It Plays Out
|2015||Columbus||Ohio State 28, Minnesota 14|
|2014||Minneapolis||Ohio State 31, Minnesota 24|
|2010||Minneapolis||Ohio State 52, Minnesota 10|
|2009||Columbus||Ohio State 38, Minnesota 7|
|2008||Columbus||Ohio State 34, Minnesota 21|
|2007||Minneapolis||Ohio State 30, Minnesota 7|
Realistically, Ohio State shouldn’t be in any danger of losing Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes are 29.5-point favorites, according to Vegas Insider, and the Golden Gophers’ play in their last two games hasn’t suggested that they should have any business beating the Buckeyes in their next game.
That said, the question isn’t whether the Buckeyes will win Saturday’s game, but whether they will play well enough in winning to make themselves and their fans feel better about their progress.
To do that, the Buckeyes will need to prevent the big plays that have plagued their defense all season, and prove they can shut down a Minnesota offense that hasn’t topped 320 yards in a game since its season opener. If the Buckeyes can get their running game back into a higher gear while continuing to pass the ball prolifically, that would also help.
As long as Ohio State comes away with a win to keep its undefeated record in tact, that’s all that really matters in Saturday’s game. The Buckeyes’ goal, though, should be to take care of business quickly and authoritatively in order to build momentum, improve their perception and give their backups an opportunity for some playing time.
ELEVEN WARRIORS STAFF PREDICTION: Ohio State 52, Minnesota 17