After its lone bye week of the season, No. 3 Ohio State is set to welcome the Minnesota Golden Gophers to Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
It will do so with a familiar face back behind center in redshirt junior Cardale Jones, who will start for the suspended J.T. Barrett.
For Minnesota, it moseys into Columbus after a head-scratching 29-26 loss to then-No. 15 Michigan on Halloween.
What would have been the go-ahead touchdown from Minnesota’s redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Leidner with 19 seconds left was overturned on review. That was followed by poor clock management on the ensuing play, before a questionable decision to bypass attempting a 19-yard field goal to tie the game, instead opting for an unsuccessful one-yard quarterback sneak as time expired.
The bizarre loss is just another installment in a rather disappointing campaign for Minnesota, which many thought would compete for the Big Ten West division crown, as it dropped to 4-4 on the year and 1-3 in the Big Ten.
Here is deeper look at the 2015 Golden Gophers.
Last week, Jerry Kill announced that he would be retiring from coaching because of health concerns. The exit of Kill, who was in the midst of his fourth season at the helm in Minneapolis, seemingly provided the double-digit underdog Golden Gophers with an emotional boost against then-No. 15 Michigan.
“Coach Kill is so important to the state of Minnesota,” Leidner said following the loss. “The whole game was just emotional … For all the work every single person on that sideline put in to play for (Kill), it’s just an overwhelming feeling.”
Leidner threw for a season-high 317 passing yards, sophomore tight end Brandon Lingen had more receiving yards (111) than he had in the first seven games combined and the offense as a whole piled up 461 yards — the second most this season — against the nation’s top-ranked defense.
The Golden Gophers, who at one point had three straight three-point wins over measly opponents Colorado State, Kent State and Ohio, arguably looked the best they had all season against the Wolverines.
Sometimes things that happen outside of the X’s and O’s, like Kill’s retirement, can have unexplainable effects once the game kicks off.
One game is much too small of a sample size to know for sure if the emotional boost will be sustained, but against Michigan, Minnesota looked like the team many expected them to be early in the season.
This week, against the nation’s No. 3 team in primetime with Kill’s exit still fresh in their minds, the Golden Gophers should be up to the challenge against OSU.
Carrying the weight
Emotions aside, there is a reason why Minnesota sits at .500 on the season.
It’s because the Golden Gopher offense is — at best — marginal, and the defense has to carry much of the weight.
Other than its 41-13 victory over Purdue (2-6), Minnesota has not scored more than 27 points in a game, which it did over the Mid-American Conference’s Ohio.
Much of the reason why the Golden Gophers are ranked 107th in scoring offense is because of their inability to find the end zone. On the year, they have just 18 touchdowns compared to 14 field goals. To put it in perspective, one of the Big Ten’s worst teams in Purdue has 30 touchdowns and only three field goals.
Those offensive struggles mean much more pressure is applied to the Minnesota defense.
For the most part, the defense has not cracked under that pressure, as it’s been rather disruptive for opponents.
Anchored by redshirt sophomore linebacker Cody Poock and senior cornerback Antonio Johnson, who both have 55 tackles on the season, the defense ranks 25th in the country.
The veteran secondary, which starts three seniors, has been stingy all season long, letting up just 174 yards per game.
With the struggling Jones back at quarterback for the Buckeyes, Minnesota will hope to capitalize on its secondary’s success and limit the OSU offense.
If the said scenario can happen, the pressure shifts to the offense to do its part and find the end zone. Unfortunately for the Golden Gophers, expecting the offense to improve against the stout Scarlet and Gray defense is a tall task.
Minnesota’s roster is littered with connections to current Buckeyes, as three players played high school football with an OSU player and another — redshirt senior center Brian Bobek — once donned the scarlet and gray. Two others are Ohio natives.
Johnson was a high school teammate of OSU redshirt sophomore defensive lineman Donovan Munger at Shaker Heights High School near Cleveland. Minnesota redshirt freshman wide receiver Isaiah Gentry, who has two catches for 36 yards this season, was high school teammates with OSU’s redshirt freshman defensive Sam Hubbard at Cincinnati’s Archbishop Moeller, where the duo won back-to-back state championships.
Minnesota redshirt freshman Jared Weyler played alongside OSU sophomore Evan Lisle on the offensive line at Centerville High School near Dayton.
Bobek, who now starts at center for Minnesota, will be returning to Columbus where he spent a season on the OSU football team in 2011, appearing in five games. The Inverness, Illinois, native transferred after his freshman campaign.
Beyond the Buckeyes
Following Saturday’s showdown, Minnesota has another undefeated team on the docket. The Golden Gophers are scheduled to take on the No. 10 Iowa Hawkeyes on Nov. 14 in Iowa City, Iowa. Kickoff is penciled in for 8 p.m.