COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Ohio State fans can perhaps be forgiven for not being able to take their eyes off Michigan and its scouting scandal, especially now that the Wolverines have accepted a sanction that means coach Jim Harbaugh can’t attend next week’s game between the teams.
But for Buckeyes players and coaches, the focus has been — as much as it can be — on this week’s opponent, Minnesota. The teams are set to kick off at 4 p.m. Saturday at Ohio Stadium in the final home game of the season.
If coach Ryan Day needed something extra to keep motivated for the Golden Gophers (5-5), the group that sets the College Football Playoff rankings might have provided it Tuesday when it dropped the Buckeyes (10-0) from No. 1 to No. 2 right after a 38-3 win over Michigan State. Georgia moved up to No. 1, with Michigan staying at No. 3.
Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck’s weekly news conference actually took place before the rankings came out.
“They’re Ohio State,” he said. “I mean, the best compliment I can give them, they’re the number-one team in the country.”
Oops. For many reasons, not just rankings, it might be the wrong time to be playing Ohio State, as Minnesota is likely to find out. Here are three things to know about the game.
How good is Minnesota?
Let’s put it this way: The Gophers’ best player might be their kicker.
Dragan Kesich is having a monster season. He’s made 21 of 25 field-goal attempts, and his 8.5 points per game are first among Big Ten kickers. He’s hit multiple field goals in eight games, including four on Oct. 21 in a 12-10 win over No. 24 Iowa in what has been the highlight of Minnesota’s season.
But Kesich’s success is clearly a sign that the Gophers offense isn’t finding the end zone nearly enough, and that stat especially stands out in games against ranked teams. In addition to scoring just 12 points against Iowa, Minnesota had 13 against No. 20 North Carolina and 10 against No. 2 Michigan.
Fleck knows the challenge the Gophers are facing when he studies the Buckeyes defense.
“It’s hard to get shots on these guys, down-the-field throws, because they’re really twitchy, really fast, really long,” he said. “That front four, no matter who’s in there, are all really good pass-rushers. Their linebackers are really good pass-rushers. They’re constantly making you get the ball out of your hand quickly.”
Look for the Buckeyes secondary to keep a close eye on Daniel Jackson, who leads the Gophers with 45 catches, 68.1 receiving yards per game and seven touchdown catches.
Who’s doing what on Ohio State’s offense, and why?
Against Michigan State, the Buckeyes started mixing up the roles of their offensive standouts. Receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. ran for a touchdown. Receiver Xavier Johnson had four carries. And running backs TreVeyon Henderson and Chip Trayanum combined for four catches.
It’s intentional, Day said.
“You’re seeing our receivers get involved with the run game. You’re seeing multiple receivers carry the ball,” he said. “You saw Marvin carry the ball, you’ve seen X carry the ball, you’ve seen Emeka [Egbuka] carry the ball, you’re seeing Tre line up as a receiver at times. All those those things help you when you’re trying to attack a defense.”
More experimentation is possible against the Gophers, who give up over 300 yards of offense per game. And it could carry over to line play, too. In the Michigan State game, guard Matthew Jones made some snaps at center.
“We felt like it was good to get him some work at center, get a knock in the game and see what that looked like,” Day said. “We had a pretty comfortable lead at that point and felt like it was good to do. … It’s always good in an opportunity like that to see if we needed to make a change, what that would look like.”
How does the Buckeyes’ banged-up defense keep getting better?
Day said this week that safety Lathan Ransom, who had been sitting out, was unlikely to play against Minnesota or Michigan, with a postseason return more probable. Ransom used a knee scooter to get around on the sideline during the Michigan State game.
But it didn’t stop the Buckeyes from tying their fewest points allowed this season. Day sees building up depth from within as essential for the defense, because unlike in the pro game, you can’t just add a player midseason.
“You can’t go pick anybody up off waivers in college football, so you have to build depth,” he said. “There’s a bunch of different ways to do that. A big part of it is development, and certainly we’re going to miss Lathan, but our guys are confident. We’re just going to forge forward and with the guys that we have and challenge those guys to play at a high level.”
It’s led to 12 players who have made at least 25 tackles. Opponents have scored only 99 points on the Buckeyes, a total that is second fewest in the nation.
Second fewest, that is, to Michigan.
One more game, and Ohio State can finally change its focus.