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Minnesota Football at Ohio State: Preview - Key Matchups

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The Ohio State Buckeyes are 8-0 and the top ranked team in college football. To say the Minnesota Golden Gophers will be challenged is an understatement.

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

The suspension of starting quarterback J.T. Barrett for an OVI is an unfortunate development for a talented young man, but the Gophers are catching a break with him sidelined. Since being inserted in the third quarter of the Buckeyes' game against Penn State three weeks ago, Barrett was 18-for-22 with 253 passing yards and 5 touchdowns, with 24 rushes for 203 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on top of that. Cardale Jones is not to be underestimated, but he is the lesser of two evils compared to Barrett. With that said, this is also a second chance for him to re-claim the starting quarterback spot after being relegated to second string prior to the Rutgers game, so the Gophers will have to contend with a very motivated Cardale Jones on Saturday. Jones is not much of a run threat, but he has been able to gash opposing defenses for large chunks with his cannon for an arm. Fortunately, the Gophers' defense has been adept at limiting long plays down the field, even with a secondary that has been without the services of safeties Damarius Travis and Ace Rogers and cornerback Craig James.

FUN FACT: Mitch Leidner has more passing completions, attempts, yards, and touchdowns that Cardale Jones.

Who will Jones being throwing the ball to? Wide receiver Michael Thomas is their leading receiver, with 536 receiving yards and 6 touchdowns. Thomas has found the end zone in all but two games this season, so chances are good that he'll be hauling in a touchdown on Saturday. You should be very familiar with Braxton Miller, the converted quarterback who was explosive in the opener against Virginia Tech but has been inconsistent up to this point in the season. This is a talented but inexperienced receiving corps, and the Gophers' secondary will need to be on their game to avoid explosive plays.

But the Buckeyes' workhorse is, without a doubt, running back Ezekiel Elliott. No one has been able to stop Elliott all season. He has yet to be held under 100 yards rushing in a game. Over his last five games alone, Elliott averaged 7.5 yards per carry. The Gophers' run defense was strong against Michigan, but the Wolverines' backfield also does not a feature a back as talented as Elliott. The Gophers will have their hands full. Ohio State's offensive line has been somewhat inconsistent this season and not as dominant as it was down the stretch at the end of last season. If the Buckeyes hit their stride on the offensive line and impose their will on a Minnesota defensive line that has been ineffective for long stretches this season, the Gophers will be in trouble.

Defensive Matchup To Watch: The Gophers' linebackers vs. Ezekiel Elliott. Minnesota will need another big game from both Cody Poock and De'Vondre Campbell. Poock was out against Nebraska and Campbell was limited in that game after missing practice due to the birth of his child that week, and the run defense suffered for it. Poock, in particular, has been phenomenal at shedding blocks and getting to the runner out of the backfield. That will need to continue for the Gophers to contain Elliott.

For much of the game last Saturday, the Gophers' offense outplayed one of the nation's best defenses, outgaining Michigan in total yards and also outscoring all but one of the Wolverines' previous opponents. Not bad for a unit tabbed as one of the worst in the Big Ten. Can Minnesota avoid a letdown after the heartbreak of last week and sustain that success on the road against the top-ranked Buckeyes? I have my doubts. The Gophers were no doubt playing with heightened emotions after a tough week, and to come up empty after that kind of effort could have a devastating affect on their psyche. The offense has been much improved since being shut out against Northwestern, in particular Mitch Leidner and the Gophers' young receiving corps. Tight end Brandon Lingen has emerged as a legitimate pass-catching replacement for Maxx Williams.

The good news for Minnesota is that the Buckeyes' defense has struggled at times against the run, ranking 52nd in the nation after allowing an average of almost 152 rushing yards to their opponents over the first eight games. The Gophers' running back tandem of Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks helped their team rack up 144 rushing yards against a stout Michigan defense that had allowed an average of 64 rushing yards per game up to that point. If the patchwork offensive line can build from their solid effort against the Wolverines -- and avoid the kind of poor performance we saw against Nebraska -- the Gophers should be able to move the ball on the ground.

But the improved passing we've seen from Leidner over the past few games will be put to the test against "the Silver Bullets." Ohio State is ranked 2nd in the nation in passing yards allowed, with opponents averaging less than 150 per game. With that said, aside from Christian Hackenberg, the Buckeyes haven't faced a passing offense with a legit passing threat at quarterback. I'm not trying to paint Leidner as a legit passing threat at quarterback, but he has had back-to-back games with over 300 passing yards now. A boy can dream, right? The Buckeyes' depth in the secondary has been thinned by injuries and suspensions, but the Gophers don't have a receiving corps deep enough to take advantage of that, in my opinion. This is a talented unit that was able to smother Penn State and Rutgers. Vonn Bell, the leader of their secondary, is a name to remember.

Offensive Matchup To Watch: Mitch Leidner vs the Buckeyes' secondary. The Gophers will need to take advantage of the Buckeyes' less than impressive run defense to be successful, but I'm curious to see if Leidner can continue to show improvement against a talented and well-coached group of defensive backs. If Minnesota hopes to pull the upset, the offense will need to be more than one-dimensional against Ohio State.

This is a road game against the defending national champion one week after losing a heartbreaker at home following an emotional week. Make no mistake, the chances of Minnesota pulling the upset are slim. The possibility of a huge letdown looms large after last Saturday. But I think the Gophers have what it takes to be competitive in this game. Will they show up to play? We'll have to wait and see.

Are there other matchups in this game that you believe could be the difference?