Last week, with 19 seconds on the board and a timeout in their pocket, the Minnesota Golden Gophers committed one of the more noticeable clock management gaffes of the season. They put guys in motion, they shifted just about every skill position player they had, and when all was said and done they had failed to get the ball the final yard into the end zone to upset the Michigan Wolverines.
It was, given the circumstances, perhaps a more forgivable error than normal. Minnesota entered the game without reigning Big Ten Coach of the Year Jerry Kill, whose health problems forced his abrupt and immediate retirement earlier in the week. It was a tough blow for the program, one which had seen a defensive resurgence under Kill that gave them some semblance of an identity and led to a pleasant surprise of a 2014 season. Interim head coach Tracy Claeys (a career defensive coordinator) was coaching in his first game in that capacity. It was was an error, certainly, but a (mildly) understandable one.
But Claeys has been blooded in Big Ten play now, and won't have the luxury of making many mistakes against an Urban Meyer-coached team. What might give Claeys hope is that his aggressive safety combo and press-coverage corners could give Cardale Jones trouble. What might put the Gophers into a hole they can't escape from, however, is the stifling pass rush of the Buckeyes. Enter defensive end Tyquan Lewis.
Weight: 260 lbs.
Current Stat Line: 26 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks
Lewis enters the ninth game of the year as the Buckeyes' leader in sacks, with five-and-a-half to his name. It certainly doesn't hurt his numbers to have players of Adolphus Washington and Joey Bosa's caliber lining up next to him, calling double-teams and the bulk of the o-line's attention, but Lewis has undoubtedly made the most of his opportunities thus far in 2015.
The game situation
Minnesota doesn't do a whole lot well on the offensive side of the ball, so Lewis should have multiple opportunities to eat. But one player the Gophers could lean on in this matchup is freshman running back Shannon Brooks, who has been one of the brightest spots for Minnesota this season. Brooks, who wasn't highly-recruited coming out of high school, has carved out a nice niche for himself in the Gopher offense. He's averaging 6.1 yards per carry and has found the end zone three times this season. The best of those touchdowns was a 71-yard scamper against Purdue, in which Brooks made multiple defenders miss and brought the kind of offensive flash that Minnesota has largely been missing since the departure of David Cobb.
One of the other possibilities for the Gophers on the ground (besides starter Rodney Smith, who has been less impressive than Brooks) is quarterback Mitch Leidner. Leidner isn't the fastest guy on the field, but he has your classic Zander Diamont-type deceptive speed, and he's carried the ball as many times as Brooks has this season. It's easy to envision him causing at least one of those stupid broken defensive plays and going untouched for 35 yards and a touchdown on a scramble, isn't it?
What to watch for
One of the most effective things that the Buckeyes have done on defense this year is install the "Rushmen" package, in which they put three defensive ends on the field alongside Adolphus Washington, a converted DE who now shores up the interior of the line. That means that Sam Hubbard, Joey Bosa, Lewis, and Washington are all on the field at the same time, with Bosa and Washington inside and Hubbard and Lewis outside.
On obvious passing downs, look for Ohio State to get aggressive by implementing this package. The four guys who run it have combined for 15.5 sacks on the season, so they're all proficient at getting to the quarterback, and Gophers QB Mitch Leidner is going to have a long day trying to throw the ball if those are the four he has to face down. The Buckeyes don't always limit this look to passing downs, either, with Bosa and Washington combining to be a stout enough presence inside to stifle the run.
The Gophers' season has been bookended by elite competition, with a whole lot of slop to go around in between. They haven't looked all that impressive against the slop, either, with the frustrating nature of their year perhaps best encapsulated by a 48-25 waxing at the hands of Nebraska, a loss which helped the B1G West snake eat its own tail: the Huskers killed the Gophers, who in turn massacred Purdue, who last week pantsed the Huskers themselves.
Ohio State will likely struggle early in this game. There will be growing pains with Cardale back at QB having had that title yanked from him several weeks ago, though the specter of Braxton Miller as his backup is perhaps less daunting than it was with Barrett. It's going to be cold, Minnesota will come to play, etc.
That said, I think Ohio State walks away with this one easily, even if Jones is as middling as he's been at stretches this year. A steady diet of carries for Ezekiel Elliott, pop passes to Miller, and slants to Jalin Marshall are as decent a backbone as you can hope for from an offense missing its true starting QB. Against Minnesota -- by all accounts a pretty stout defense, coming in at 21st in Bill C.'s S&P+ rankings -- it might take some time to get those things going at full speed. But Minnesota's offense is as lousy as its defense is respectable, and with guys like Tyquan Lewis and co. coming after Leidner and Brooks on every down, the Gophers won't be able to score fast enough for it to matter. A final score in the neighborhood of 31-10 feels about right for this one.