Preview: Ohio State Opens Season with Thursday Night Big Ten Road Test at Minnesota

By Dan Hope on September 2, 2021 at 8:35 am
C.J. Stroud

For the second time in five years, Ohio State will begin its season with a Thursday night road game against a conference opponent.

In 2017, the Buckeyes kicked off their season with a 49-21 win over Indiana in Bloomington under the Thursday night lights. They’ll look to achieve a similar outcome when they open their 2021 season this Thursday night against Minnesota in their first game in Minneapolis since 2014.

Starting the season against a conference opponent, though, means Ohio State will need to come out of the gates strong to ensure it begins the year with a win. With a brand new starting quarterback and lingering questions about the defense, Ohio State would probably prefer to start the year with a tune-up game against an overmatched non-conference opponent, but it doesn’t get that luxury this season.




That said, Ohio State has had seven-and-a-half months of anticipation and preparation for this season since its national championship game loss to Alabama in January. And Ryan Day expects his team to be ready to go when foot hits ball to begin the Buckeyes’ 2021 campaign shortly after 8 p.m. at Minnesota’s Huntington Bank Stadium.

“Minnesota’s a very, very good team. P.J. Fleck’s a very good coach. And it’s going to be hard to win this game. And our guys have to understand that. And they will,” Day said. “They do. We have their attention. We’ve been talking about this for a long time. A conference game right out of the gate with a young quarterback, they’ve got it.”

The Headlines

C.J. Stroud’s First Start

All eyes will be on C.J. Stroud on Thursday night as he not only makes his first start as Ohio State’s new quarterback, but throws his first-ever pass in a collegiate game. After playing just eight snaps and never attempting a pass as a true freshman in 2020, Stroud has been given the keys to lead the Buckeyes’ offense as the 2021 season begins.

Stroud earned the trust of both his coaches and teammates with a strong offseason, but he’s still completely unproven in actual game action. His first chance to begin proving himself comes Thursday night, when he’ll finally face a live defense and be tasked with driving the Buckeyes down the field with the game on the line.

As he fills the massive shoes left behind by Justin Fields, expectations are high for Stroud to become the next star quarterback in Columbus. But he has to start by just getting a win in Minneapolis, and Day wants him to focus on just doing what he needs to do rather than trying to emerge as an immediate Heisman candidate.

“He’s gonna have to work through all the things of being a quarterback, like when to take care of the ball and when to cut your losses. He’s gonna get hit along the way. He’s gonna have to show toughness just like Justin did last year. And all the things that will come along with playing,” Day said. “And he will. I think we all believe in him, I think the team believes in him and we’re all there to help him.”

Unless the game becomes a blowout or something happens to Stroud, he’ll be the only quarterback to play for Ohio State on Thursday. Day said Monday that there are no plans to play any other quarterbacks with the game on the line.

An Immediate Test for the Defense

Aside from whether Stroud would ultimately win the starting quarterback job, the other big question throughout Ohio State’s 2021 offseason has been whether the defense will improve after giving up more than 25 points per game and over 400 yards per game last season.

Specifically, the Buckeyes’ championship hopes could hinge on whether they’re better on pass defense, which was Ohio State’s clear weakness in 2020 as it allowed more than 300 passing yards per game. The Golden Gophers will likely look to test Ohio State’s secondary, and they’re capable of doing so. Tanner Morgan is a third-year starting quarterback with more than 6,000 career passing yards. How much of a test Ohio State will face through the air could depend on the availability of Chris Autman-Bell, Minnesota’s top returning wide receiver, who’s a game-time decision after suffering a preseason leg injury.

The biggest challenge for Ohio State’s defense in this game, however, could come on the ground. Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim ranked second among all Football Bowl Subdivision players with 153.7 rushing yards per game last season, and he runs behind a massive offensive line that is composed entirely of seniors with starting experience.

Ohio State’s run defense was strong last season, when they allowed just 97.6 rushing yards per game, but the Buckeyes are breaking in a brand new group of linebackers this year, and Ibrahim and the Golden Gophers will put them to the test right away.

“I think the running back is dynamic. I think he’s the gas that makes the engine go. I think that it’s a very good offensive line. I think every one of them’s been All-Big Ten at some time or another, and they come off the ball really well. They play within their system incredibly well, and they’re gonna do what they do,” Ohio State defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs said this week. “So we’ve gotta do a great job of defending what they do.”

Mohamed Ibrahim
Slowing down Mohamed Ibrahim will be the top priority for Ohio State's defense on Thursday night. (Photo: Jesse Johnson – USA TODAY Sports)

On the Road with a Crowd Again

Thursday night’s game will be the first time since 2019 that Ohio State has played in a true road environment. The Buckeyes played in just two road games during their abbreviated 2020 regular season, and there were no fans in the stands for either of those games – at Penn State and at Michigan State – due to the Big Ten’s COVID-19 protocols.

For a team that will be breaking in a new starting quarterback and relying on many other inexperienced players on both sides of the ball, that’s an added variable that could come into play, as neither Stroud nor any of Ohio State’s other first- or second-year players have yet played a college game in front of a hostile crowd in an opponent’s home stadium.

Of course, there will surely be some Ohio State fan representation in the crowd too, and after a season of playing games in unusually quiet stadiums, the Buckeyes are excited just to hear the roar of any fans again.

“It’s a blessing to be able to play in front of fans because obviously they haven’t seen us in a long time, they haven’t seen us play in person,” Ohio State linebacker Teradja Mitchell said. “So when we get the opportunity, it’s gonna be fun.”

Keep An Eye on These Guys

RB Mohamed Ibrahim

Ibrahim was one of the best running backs in the entire country last season, rushing for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in just seven games. 

At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, Ibrahim is a compact runner who finishes through contact while he also has enough speed and agility to make big plays when he gets into open space. He had 30 runs of 10 or more yards in 2020, the most of any FBS player who played in fewer than 10 games, so he will make the Buckeyes pay if they aren’t sound in manning their gaps and wrapping him up.

“Definitely can’t arm tackle him,” Mitchell said. “I think he’s one of the better backs in the country. So it’s definitely going to be a challenge for the defense.”

Coombs said Ibrahim’s patience as a runner reminds him of NFL running back Le’Veon Bell.

“When he sees a crease, he goes and he attacks it,” Coombs said. “We’ve gotta make sure that we build a wall, that we hold our gaps, that we don’t get impatient and jump out to go make a play. We gotta hold our gap, build that wall so he’s eventually got nowhere to go.”

RT Daniel Faalele

Dawand Jones will certainly be the biggest player on the field in most games Ohio State plays this season, but he won’t even be the biggest right tackle in this game. While Jones is a giant at 6-foot-8 and 360 pounds, Faalele is even larger, with listed measurables of 6-foot-9 and 380 pounds.

Projected Starters
Ohio State Pos Minnesota

Like Jones, Faalele can move well even with his gargantuan dimensions, making him both a force as a run blocker and tough to get around as a pass blocker. The Australia native opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns, but was an All-Big Ten honorable mention in both 2018 and 2019 and will give the Gophers a big – literally – boost up front this year.

Considering that Minnesota has seven offensive linemen who have started at least 10 games in their college careers, including a 45-game starter in Conner Olson and two 33-game starters in left tackle Sam Schlueter and left guard Blaise Andries, the entire offensive line will be a unit to watch on Thursday night, but Faalele is certainly the Gopher lineman who stands out most physically.

DE Boye Mafe

As Jones makes his first start at right tackle and Nicholas Petit-Frere moves to left tackle, they’ll face a challenge on the edges from Mafe, who came in at No. 17 on Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks” list this year. A 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end, Mafe reportedly has a 4.57-second 40-yard dash time and a 40.5-inch vertical jump, and he led Minnesota with 4.5 sacks in just six games last season.

Mafe isn’t quite Kayvon Thibodeaux, the superstar Oregon defensive end Ohio State is slated to face next week, but he’ll still present a real first test to the Buckeyes’ new offensive tackle pairing with a combination of size, athleticism and power that should be one of the best Ohio State faces all year, and makes him a potential breakout star in 2021. Keeping Mafe in check will be the top priority for Ohio State’s offensive line to protect Stroud in his first start.

Game Week Talk

“I’ll tell you after Thursday night’s game. If you win the game, then you got one in your pocket. Obviously if you don’t, then you’ve got a lot of work to do.”– Ryan Day on if he likes beginning the season with a conference game

Ohio State has won its last 21 consecutive season openers, and if it can do that again on Thursday, the Buckeyes will already have a Big Ten victory in the books. Thursday’s game comes with higher stakes and isn’t going to be as easy to win as some of those 21 games, though, which means Day also has more reason to be anxious going into the first game than he would if the Buckeyes were playing a Group of 5 opponent.

“You forget how long training camp is when you don’t have one for a year. So it’s time to go play a game. We’ve been seeing each other long enough. It’s time to go play.”– Kerry Coombs

After COVID-19 robbed the Buckeyes of a conventional offseason last year, Ohio State was able to have a full preseason camp this year, and Coombs and the Buckeyes believe that has prepared them well for the 2021 season. But they’re all looking forward to playing against another team on Thursday night.

“They're a really good football team. I think everybody knows that and that's well-documented and well-deserved. We've got to be the best team we can be on Thursday night. That's where my focus lies, and that's what we'll continue to focus on.”– Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck

As the Gophers look to row the boat to an upset win on Thursday, they know the Buckeyes are about to send a tidal wave their way.

Get Smart

  • Ohio State has won 11 straight games against Minnesota dating back to 2001. The Buckeyes’ most recent win against the Gophers came in 2018, when Ohio State won 30-14 in Ohio Stadium. The Buckeyes’ last loss to the Gophers occurred in 2000, when the Buckeyes suffered a 29-17 loss at the Shoe. The Gophers haven’t defeated Ohio State at home since a 35-31 victory over the Buckeyes in 1981.
  • Thursday’s game will be the 54th-ever meeting between Ohio State and Minnesota. The Buckeyes have a 46-7 all-time record against Minnesota with wins in 27 of the last 28 contests between the two programs.
  • This will be Ohio State’s fourth-ever Thursday night season opener. The Buckeyes also opened their seasons with Thursday night games against Wyoming in 1997 and Marshall in 2010, both games they also won, before playing Indiana in 2017.
  • Minnesota’s roster features nine players from Ohio, including starting kicker Matthew Trickett, a product of Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School who transferred to Minnesota from Kent State. Four Gopher backups are from the greater Columbus area: defensive back Miles Fleming (who played his high school football at Bishop Hartley), defensive linemen Thomas Rush (Marysville) and Gage Keys (Hilliard Davidson) and linebacker Devon Williams (Dublin Coffman). Ohio State’s 2021 roster does not include any players from Minnesota.
  • Ohio State’s status report of unavailable players for Thursday night’s game will be released at 5 p.m. Thursday.

How It Plays Out

Line: Ohio State -14, O/U 62.5

There are two major factors that will determine whether Ohio State wins this game comfortably or whether Minnesota pushes for an upset: Will the Buckeyes’ offense find their stride quickly with Stroud at quarterback, and will the Ohio State defense be capable of shutting down Minnesota’s offense?

If Stroud performs up to expectations, Ohio State could put up a lot of points in Minneapolis. The Gophers’ defense struggled against both the pass and the run last season, and from a talent standpoint, they’re almost certainly going to be overmatched against the Buckeyes’ loaded receiving corps. 

How much the Buckeyes can rely on their running game to take pressure off of Stroud is a question going into the season opener, too, but if Stroud can get into a rhythm and some combination of Miyan Williams, Master Teague and TreVeyon Henderson can run the ball effectively – the latter of which could have increased importance with rain in Thursday night’s Minneapolis forecast – Ohio State could turn the game into a rout.

Of course, that will also depend on an Ohio State defense that has a ton to prove entering that season, and there’s some reason to be concerned about that. The veteran duo of Morgan and Ibrahim will test the Buckeyes in both the pass and the run game, and Ohio State will be relying on unproven linebackers being ready to play big roles as well as a bunch of players who need to be better than last year in the secondary.

Still, the advantage Ohio State’s offense will have over Minnesota’s defense should be bigger than the other way around. Playing a primetime season opener on the road against an opponent that could be one of the better teams in the Big Ten West this year likely won’t be a cakewalk, and that’s why Ohio State is only a two-touchdown favorite. As long as the Buckeyes can bring a win home from Minneapolis, though, they’ll have reason to celebrate heading into a long weekend before gearing up for their marquee non-conference tilt against Oregon on Sept. 11.

“I told the team the other day, in the first meeting of the week, is that’s the goal here is to go 1-0,” Day said Monday. “There’s no expectations. You don’t know how it’s gonna go. And whether we go up, we go down, it’s even, we’re gonna get that game to the fourth quarter and then find a way to win the game. And that’s the only expectation right now.”

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