If you thought the weather for last Saturday’s prime time showdown between Ohio State and Michigan State hinted at the onset of winter, wait till this coming weekend. When the Buckeyes face off against Minnesota (only fitting I use a hockey term, right?) on Saturday, the forecasted temperature for the noon kickoff at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis is expected to be in the mid-20s with the possibility of snow showers during the game. There’s a famed NFL stadium a tad under 300 miles due east in Green Bay, WI known for cold weather contests throughout its history but make no mistake, the home field of the Golden Gophers will become a “frozen tundra” of field turf come the weekend (warming technology aside).
But enough with the weather forecast; I’ll leave that to Jim Cantore. For the record, I do choose to go the bald-headed route with my hairdo much like him but I don’t get paid to stand in the middle of blizzards, category-3 hurricanes, and the like. I write about sports, and specifically in this case, giving you, the reader, a concise breakdown of what we can expect to see when the Buckeyes take the field Saturday to continue their quest for a 35th Big Ten championship and an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State-Minnesota Preview
The Buckeyes are coming off a statement 49-37 victory over Michigan State where redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett reintroduced himself into the Heisman conversation with perhaps the performance of the year from a Big Ten signal caller. When the smoke cleared, he finished with 300 yards passing, 86 yards rushing and accounted for five total touchdowns (three through the air and two on the ground). For you fantasy aficionados, that translates to 44.6 points in a standard scoring league. His Total QBR of 98.3 on the night ranked second in the nation for week 11.
If you’re wondering who finished first last week, lo and behold it was the quarterback of the Buckeyes week 12 opponent, Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner. The redshirt sophomore from Lakeville, MN didn’t put up monster numbers, but was ridiculously efficient in the Gophers 51-14 demolition of Iowa which won them the Floyd of Rosedale rivalry trophy. His 138 yards was nothing to write home about, but he threw for four touchdowns and finished with a 76.9% completion percentage. I’ve mentioned in my first Heisman frontrunner article that the ESPN Total QBR metric takes into account the situational importance of your stats, and three of Leidner’s touchdown passes came during a 28-point second quarter that saw Minnesota go to the locker room with a decisive 35-7 halftime lead. He beat out Barrett by one-tenth of a point with a 98.4 QBR.
As of Tuesday’s most recent CFP selection committee poll, Saturday’s game will be a meeting between ranked teams, with the 7-2 Gophers appearing in the rankings for the first time at 25th. Head coach Jerry Kill has this team headed in the right direction as his fourth year at the helm of the Minnesota program draws to a close. Kill is about as likable a coach as there is not just in the Big Ten, but in the entire country, especially when you’re made familiar of his story and the adversity he’s been able to overcome in his life.
While coaching at Southern Illinois in 2005, Kill suffered a seizure and while in the hospital was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Through treatment, he was able to get the cancer into remission, but he has continuously had recurrences of seizures since. Last season, after having his fifth seizure since taking over as head coach of Minnesota, Kill decided to take a leave of absence to address his health issues. The Gophers appeared to circle the wagons in the wake of this, reeling off four straight wins to get to 8-2 as defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys took over Kill’s head coaching duties. Kill would eventually return to coach from the press box en route to a respectable 8-5 record that culminated with a hard-fought 21-17 loss to Syracuse in the Texas Bowl.
In a conference that has become synonymous with elite running backs, both the Buckeyes and Gophers possess two capable athletes at the position. Minnesota’s David Cobb is ninth nationally with 133.9 yards per game. He’s a quintessential volume running back, leading the Big Ten with 25.22 carries per game. In fact, only Jarvion Franklin of Western Michigan averages more reps on a game-by-game basis in FBS than Cobb. Ezekiel Elliott, much like his quarterback Barrett, had a breakout game of sorts himself in East Lansing running for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He loves to do the whole Eddie George thing with his elevated jersey that showcases his six-pack, but given the anticipated icy conditions in Minneapolis he might want to keep the abs covered for this one.
Hearkening back to those conditions, expect the running game to figure prominently for both teams. When the passing game is employed, I’m anticipating that yards after catch will become a crucial stat to pay attention to as screens, quick slants and similar patterns are employed especially if wind becomes a factor (as if the mid 20s by itself isn’t cold enough). When you have speedy receivers such as Michael Thomas who can establish separation in the open field as he did on the 79-yard touchdown reception he caught against the Spartans, you’re going to have an advantage. Thomas and Devin Smith have combined for nearly as many yards catching the ball (1,102) as the entire Gophers receiving corps combined (1,262).
Minnesota will have to bring their A-game on defense if they want to upend the Buckeyes particularly with respect to forcing mistakes out of Barrett. The Gophers have 12 interceptions on the year which is tied for 17th in FBS. Briean Boddy-Calhoun will be a player to watch in the secondary, having picked the ball off three times himself. Despite the win over Sparty, the critic in me wants to say that Ohio State forced no turnovers, gave up 37 points and sacked Connor Cook a single time. Joey Bosa was relatively anonymous all game, and will be going up against a Minnesota offensive line that ranks 24th nationally allowing only 1.33 sacks per game.
I hate to beat a dead horse by rehashing the same component of the game I think will be crucial as I did last week, but what these two respective teams do on third down once again will be a major factor. MSU’s 53.3% third down conversion percentage wasn’t exactly abysmal but OSU had 14 third downs and converted on ten of them, a 71.4% mark. The Buckeyes are sixth-best nationally in this metric while Minnesota isn’t even in the top 50. If the Ohio State pass rush can experience a revival of sorts and register more than just a single sack on third and super-long over the course of an entire game as was the case against the Spartans, they’ll be quite all right.
Three more games remain. If OSU can prevent the wintry weather from putting a damper on their current hot streak, the schedule should soften up with two games in the Horseshoe to finish out the regular season against Indiana and struggling arch rival Michigan. Nothing is guaranteed, especially against the Wolverines who would like nothing more than to be the second team from Michigan in as many years to spoil the Buckeyes CFP hopes. That said, the Scarlet and Gray should fancy their chances to take on most likely the winner of Saturday’s Nebraska-Wisconsin game three weeks from now in the Big Ten Championship.
Dontre Wilson has a broken foot and will most likely miss the rest of the year. Head coach Urban Meyer is supposedly under the weather going into a game where he’ll have to stand in possibly single-digit wind chills. Other than that, hey, what else could go wrong? I guess we’ll see when these two teams battle on the gridiron in conditions that will remind us in the Midwest that winter isn’t just right around the corner…it’s smack dab in our faces.
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