Welcome back! Gopher football is here again, as Minnesota opens the season on Thursday, Sept. 2, hosting the No. 4-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes under the lights at Huntington Bank Stadium. You’ve likely never even heard of Ohio State, so allow me to educate you on what to expect from the Buckeyes, who will be led by third-year head coach Ryan Day.
Can Ohio State score on offense?
Say goodbye to Justin Fields. Say hello to C.J. Stroud. The redshirt freshman quarterback, who has yet to make a pass attempt in a collegiate game, is a former four-star recruit whose scouting report touts the strength of his arm, his ability to throw the deep ball with touch and accuracy, and the athleticism that allows him to extend plays outside the pocket. He’s everything you’d expect from an Ohio State quarterback. He also has what you might call a first-year quarterback’s best friends: wide receivers Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, the latter being a first-team preseason All-American and the former a second-team preseason All-American.
While the Buckeyes are loaded with elite talent at wide receiver, don’t sleep on their rushing attack. Leading rusher Master Teague may not even be the starter and is likely to split the load with redshirt freshman Miyan Williams and freshman TreVeyon Henderson. Regardless of who is toting the rock, they’ll have the luxury of running behind an offensive line with two potential All-Americans at offensive tackle: Thayer Munford and Nicholas Petit-Frere. Interestingly enough, Munford won’t even be playing tackle for the Buckeyes, having shifted to left guard in preseason camp to open up a starting spot for Dawand Jones at right tackle.
Even with Braelen Oliver back from injury and the added veteran presence of Abilene Christian transfer Jack Gibbens, it’s a safe bet that Ohio State is going to attack the Gophers’ not-so-new but hopefully improved linebacker corps. Minnesota must slow the Buckeyes’ ground game and put the pressure on the shoulders of C.J. Stroud. Ohio State certainly has the talent to the beat the Gophers through the air, but the least Minnesota can do is make them earn it.
Put simply, Minnesota needs to avoid a repeat performance from last year’s season opener, when the Gophers allowed the Wolverines to rush for 256 yards (averaging 8.3 yards per carry) and made then Michigan starting quarterback Joe Milton (who has since transferred to Tennessee) look like a Heisman candidate with 225 passing yards, 52 rushing yards, and two touchdowns.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Kerry Coombs takes over as the Buckeyes’ sole defensive coordinator after splitting duties last season with Greg Mattison, who has since retired. The biggest change under Coombs, who must replace six starters from last year’s defense, will be the transition to a 4-2-5 base defense. I question how much 4-2-5 we will see Ohio State make use of against Minnesota though, considering the Gophers’ offense is predicated on controlling the clock with their ground game.
Running back Mohamed Ibrahim operating behind the Gophers’ veteran offensive line will certainly present a challenge for the Buckeyes’ defensive front, which will need to replace all three starting linebackers from a season ago. I have to imagine that the Buckeyes’ shift to the 4-2-5 may in part be due to their personnel, as none of the linebackers on their roster have starting experience. Ohio State is also replacing two starters on the defensive line, but the strength of their defense is still up front. Defensive tackle Haskell Garett is a preseason All-American, and the Buckeyes feature a pair of veteran defensive ends in Zach Harrison and Tyreke Smith.
In the secondary, Ohio State is looking for improvement after struggling in pass defense last season. Sevyn Banks and Cameron Brown are expected to be the Buckeyes’ starting cornerbacks this fall, but both spent much of preseason camp working their way back from injuries. Ohio State needs both of them to stay healthy, otherwise they’ll be forced to tap into reserves who lack significant game experience. The Buckeyes are on much more solid ground at safety, where senior Josh Proctor leads the defensive backfield at free safety. Sophomore Lathan Ransom is the starter at the other safety spot, where he made a himself at home down the stretch last season, holding his own against the likes of Clemson and Alabama.
This is a talented defense, but there are vulnerabilities, to be sure. The question is whether Minnesota can effectively exploit them. If you ask me, I believe it will come down to the Gophers’ ability to consistently gain yards on the ground, especially in the early downs. Ohio State has been stout against the run year in and year out, and I don’t expect that to change this season. Assuming wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell is not cleared to play, I don’t know how much faith I have in the Gophers’ inexperienced wide receivers being able to consistently get separation. Minnesota certainly isn’t going to beat Ohio State in a sprint. They need to be able to control the clock.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
Minnesota has not beaten Ohio State since 2000. Is it possible that losing streak ends with an upset on Thursday? Yes. The last No. 4-ranked team to visit Huntington Bank Stadium can attest to that possibility. But is an upset probable? No. The Buckeyes are one of the most talented teams in the country. They have to replace a significant number of starters from last season, but that is more of a minor inconvenience for them as opposed to a serious stumbling block.
Season openers, especially for teams in the underdog role, come down to mistakes. To win, you need to limit your own mistakes and capitalize on the ones your opponent makes. Minnesota brings back a lot of experience, and the hope is that that experience translates to a smart and disciplined team. I expect the 2021 Gophers to be an improvement over the 2020 Gophers, but I don’t have the confidence to pick the upset. Ohio State 31, Minnesota 20.