Ohio State’s season opener is just a little bit more than 24 hours away and it is time to really take a deep dive into the first opponent, the Minnesota Golden Gophers. If it feels like it has been a minute since these two teams have played, you would be correct. They last met in 2018 and since the 2010 season have only played four times due to the unbalanced Big Ten scheduling with Ohio State in the East and the Gophers in the West.
The Buckeyes have owned this series, leading by an overall mark of 46-7, Ohio State’s last loss occurring in 2000 and then you have to go back 19 years for the next loss in the series.
For those of you who have not read a Behind Enemy Lines piece before, we ask someone who covers the upcoming opponent on a daily basis a series of five to seven questions, get their insights and always end with their prediction for the game. It is a chance to see how the other side of the game sees things and often brings great insight on things that we may miss not covering the opponents as closely as we cover the Buckeyes.
Without further delay, let’s get to the first one as we talk to Alex Carlson of The Gopher Report out of the Rivals.com network and get his thoughts on this Big Ten tilt on Thursday to start the season for both teams.
Kevin Noon: How did 2020 get so far away from Minnesota coming off of a 11-2 season in 2019? How much of this can be attributed to the uncertain nature of the season with COVID and how much of it was something else?
Alex Carlson: I think from a talent attrition standpoint, that contributed more so to the decline from year to year than anything else. The 2019 team had an All-American in Antoine Winfield, All-Big Ten Tyler Johnson at WR, Carter Coughlin, Kamal Martin, Chris Williamson who all got drafted. Rodney Smith at RB is with Carolina and Thomas Barber was a three-year starter at LB.
From a talent standpoint, there were a lot of really good players who were also veterans on that 2019 team. There was always going to be a talent drop off a bit after a year like that but then the offensive coordinator leaves after 2019 for Penn State.
Then 2020 is a new year with a brand-new coordinator with no spring practice, limited fall practice, etc. and it all happened at once. So while some of it can be attributed to COVID, like most teams, a loss of talent and veterans was bigger in my opinion.
Kevin Noon: Ohio State showed some vulnerability in the secondary last season, can Tanner Morgan capitalize, especially coming off of a 58-percent passing season in 2020? Who are the major pass-catching weapons on offense and does Minnesota have enough firepower in the passing game if Ohio State is successful in limiting the run?
Alex Carlson: That will be the big question to understand if the Gophers can make it a game or not. Morgan was very successful in 2019 but then dropped off a bit a season ago.
Losing Bateman for some games, new OC, limited practice, etc. all contributed to that. Everyone wants to know which Tanner Morgan is the one we’re going to see, 2019 or 2020?
Chris Autman-Bell is the lone receiver with a lot of production on the team; he has 78 catches for 1,250 yards and six touchdowns in 33 career games. He’s the unquestioned No. 1 on the team but rolled his ankle bad in practice a couple weeks ago, so nobody knows his status for the game.
Besides him, the rest of the receivers aren’t proven. It will be difficult for them to get consistent separation especially if Minnesota is struggling on the ground. One guy to watch is Texas A&M transfer Dylan Wright. He redshirted a year ago in College Station, but at 6-foot-3, is probably the biggest mismatch the Gophers have outside and has been making some “wow” catches in camp. I expect him to get some looks to try to get an advantage.
Kevin Noon: Speaking of the running game with Mohamed Ibrahim, what sets him apart from other backs? Ohio State does not give up a lot of yards on the ground traditionally how will Minnesota go about attacking a traditionally stout run defense?
Alex Carlson: Mo runs incredibly tough and has excellent vision. He has a knack for finding the hole and at only about 5-foot-8, he typically has the lower center of gravity on any given matchup. A guy that gets better as the game goes on and wears teams down with his strength and balance. He’s a guy that might go 3, 4, 4, 6, 1 and then all of the sudden you start to see bigger chunk plays of 10, 17, 14 in the 3rd & 4th quarter.
Due to his height, he almost hides behind the offensive line a bit too until he hits the hole. Unique style but he uses it to his advantage. I think Minnesota will try to give Ohio State different looks.
Sometimes go heavy and bring in six lineman and a couple TE’s for a certain look, then go unbalanced, mix up counters, outside zone/inside zone. The Gophers don’t have the athletes that Ohio State does, so they have to throw in different looks and not give them a ton of the same looks. Then, use the RPO off of that to spring some bigger plays.
Kevin Noon: How does Minnesota get better stopping the run this season? If Ohio State decides with a first-year starting quarterback to run it 50-plus times, does Minnesota have a chance to slow down the run game coming off of a dismal 2020?
Alex Carlson: The run defense should be much improved from a year ago. Last season due to injuries and COVID, a true freshman was making his first ever start in game one against Michigan at middle linebacker.
That’s not going to be a recipe for success.
The team brought in Nyles Pinckney from Clemson who was a two-time captain there and Val Martin, a graduate transfer from NC State to beef up the defensive tackle spots. They also brought in Jack Gibbens, a graduate transfer who has 250+ career tackles from Abilene Christian at MLB and he looks really good in practice.
Braelen Oliver, a rotational LB, was out for 2020 with a knee injury but now returns. Up front, the team should be much improved at stopping the run. A lot of young players were forced to play a season ago probably before they were ready but now it has helped them develop a bit. The passing game, however, for Minnesota is suspect and that is where the biggest question mark lies in my opinion. That is where Ohio State has a massive advantage and could expose the Gophers often.
Kevin Noon: Minnesota pulls the home upset if it…
Alex Carlson: It becomes a low-scoring dog fight, CJ Stroud throws 2-3 INTs, and the Gophers get a defensive touchdown.
The Buckeyes are one of the most talented teams in the country. They win that battle, no doubt. It would take a near perfect game from Minnesota to pull off an upset. But if it were to happen, it would have to be a low-scoring game something like 24-21, where Mo Ibrahim has 40+ carries and the Gophers own the time of possession battle.
Stroud has a couple interceptions and Minnesota gets a couple lucky breaks to fall their way. Just by time of possession and not giving the Buckeye offense the ball enough, the Gophers squeeze something out. Not saying that will happen, but it would have to go something like that for the Gophers to have a chance at an upset.
Kevin Noon: How do you see this game playing out and what is your final score prediction?
Alex Carlson: I was at the game in Ohio State a couple years ago when the Gophers played in Columbus when the Gophers kind of just hung around. They were only down 17-14 at half and then 20-14 at the end of the third.
It was fall break in Columbus so the place wasn’t packed with fans and Ohio State came out slow while the Gophers had a few nice splash plays to keep them in it. Eventually, the Buckeyes pulled away a bit more and won 30-14.
I see a similar game script happening this time around. First time with fans in a stadium in a while and the place will be rocking which should make things slightly more difficult for Ohio State. I think Minnesota keeps it close and goes into halftime down maybe 17-10 then eventually Ohio State breaks it open and wins 35-21 or something like that. The Gophers will hang around for a little bit but eventually the Buckeyes and their talent breaks it open.