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Ohio State vs. Minnesota preview: Cardale Jones faces stout Gopher defense

With Cardale Jones back in the saddle, the Buckeyes will look to keep their momentum alive.

Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

As bye weeks go, this one was a little less than ideal for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Newly reappointed starting QB J.T. Barrett's arrest for OVI, and subsequent suspension, came right on the heels of Urban Meyer's squad finally hitting its offensive stride. In the last three games the Buckeyes have played, they've notched 49, 38, and 49 points, totals much more in line with the expectations that were set heading into this season. But with Barrett -- a seemingly perfect fit for the offense that Meyer and his staff want to run -- gone against the Minnesota Golden Gophers, will they regress?

There's no easy answer to that question. By most statistical measures (which you can check out in depth below), the Gophers are a middling team, one that likely can't keep pace with a team as explosive as Ohio State. And Cardale Jones, despite his struggles early this season, closed last year by finding wild success against defenses like Alabama and Wisconsin, so it's not as though we don't know whether or not he's capable of finding that next gear.

But we can't discount Jones' struggles entirely. Call it a bad scheme fit, call it the yips, call it J.T. breathing down his neck, call it a lack of leadership due to too much time spent on Twitter and not enough in the film room. (Okay, maybe don't do that.) Whatever the cause, Jones hasn't looked nearly as comfortable as the Buckeyes' quarterback in 2015, and that was against a few defenses inferior to Minnesota's.

Nor can we ignore what the Gophers have done in their biggest games this season. In Week 1, they held TCU -- currently sitting at No. 5 in the AP Top 25 -- to 23 points, far and away a season low for the Horned Frogs. It was a six-point loss to one of the country's best teams. Tell me Texas wouldn't trade their TCU game for that one in a heartbeat. Then, last week, against a Michigan team looking to rebound from one of the flukiest losses in college football's long memory, they almost eked out an upset, losing in the final seconds as they played for a win rather than a tie.

The point here is that while Ohio State is the heavy favorite, and rightfully so, there's a non-zero chance that the Gophers' defense helps drag this game down into the mud. It's usually warmer in Columbus than Minnesota this time of year, so last year's snow-blind mouth-punching mess hopefully won't be repeated, but this is a team playing the rest of the season with a fierce love for Jerry Kill in their hearts. They won't score much, but they might not let Ohio State score much, either.

Data dump

Team Record AP F/+ Rk Line
Ohio State 8-0 1 6 -23
Minnesota 4-4 NR 65

Ohio State Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.38 17 1.26 72 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 46.7% 23 32.3% 9 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 34.5 4 25.1 3 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 5.13 40 4.03 29 4.67
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED -3.71 108 Turnover Luck (PPG):
+1.69
ACTUAL -1 78

Minnesota Five Factors

Offense Defense
Category Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 1.23 80 1.09 8 1.26
EFFICIENCY Success Rate 39.3% 96 39.4% 54 40.4%
FIELD POSITION Avg. FP 29.1 90 29.5 63 29.9
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 3.84 117 5.16 108 4.67
TURNOVER MARGIN EXPECTED -1.31 86 Turnover Luck (PPG):
-0.43
ACTUAL -2 85

Ohio State's Biggest Advantages

ZEEEEEEKE. The good news for Ohio State, despite the suspension, is that it doesn't matter as much who's under center when they have Ezekiel Elliott to hand the ball off to. He's at 13 straight games with 100 yards rushing, and while the Gophers might test him on that streak, he's going to find his six-and-a-half yards per carry one way or another.

He's also evolved into a monster at pass-blocking, which means that Cardale Jones might get an extra half-second or so to get his throw off if Elliott is chipping a blitzing linebacker. And should he choose to release and get open as a safety valve? Well, that's not great for the Gophers either. Elliott has been targeted by his QBs 23 times this year, and he has 23 catches on those plays. No one on the Buckeyes with more than one target to his name shares the distinction of not dropping a single one.

Anti-aircraft guns. The secret's going to get out there eventually, so we'll just come out and say it, okay? Mitch Leidner isn't a great quarterback. He can be of service, certainly, and his 300+ yards through the air against Michigan are certainly nothing to sneeze at. But he gained those yards while completing less than 50% of his passes, something that's not out of the ordinary for him. He's at 57.8% for the year, and that's not promising for the Gophers.

That's because the people he'll be throwing at -- Eli Apple, Gareon Conley, Vonn Bell, and Tyvis Powell -- have combined to form one of the stingiest pass defenses in the country. The Buckeyes are No. 2 in the country in passing S&P+, and No. 1 in opponent passing success rate, which doesn't bode well for a quarterback as inefficient as Leidner.

Major coaching mismatch. Interim Gophers head coach Tracy Claeys made a monumental clock management screwup against Michigan last week. Claeys was previously Minnesota's defensive coordinator, not an offensive mastermind, and while his growing pains as a two-way coach will certainly be forgivable, he won't have a lot of room for error against an evil genius like Urban Meyer.

While the score at the end of the fourth quarter likely won't be close enough for any split-second decisions by Claeys to matter, who knows what the picture will look like at the end of, say, the first half, when the Gophers might need to find a way to scrape up some points (or prevent some) by using the clock shrewdly. That's not a concern for Meyer, but it might be for Claeys until he gets a few more games under his belt.

Minnesota's Biggest Advantages

Pugnacity. Pugnacity is not the ancestral homeland of those dogs with messed up noses with horrible breathing problems. Rather, it describes a willingness to get out there and slug somebody in the mouth. The Gophers' defense is primed to do just that. By the advanced metrics, they're hovering around the 24th-best in the country, when factors like defensive explosiveness, efficiency, and field position are considered.

They don't give up a ton of big plays, though they are prone to giving up more points than they should, so Ohio State might be in for much more of a ground-and-pound day than a display of offensive fireworks.

Something to play for. I know we've clowned Jerry Kill repeatedly on this website, but that has always had very little to do with Kill and more to do with the absurdity of naming one coach the conference "Coach of the Year" when another coach from that conference, uhhh, won the national championship.

Give Kill his due: he did a whole lot without having a whole lot. He was -- is -- absolutely beloved at Minnesota (the Gophers came out against Michigan bearing a "Jerrysota" flag), and his abrupt departure broke more than a few hearts. What better way to pay homage to their departed coach than by shocking the world against the best (or third best, hahaha) team in the country?

Summary

F/+ Projection: 36.2 - 16.0, Ohio State

Win Probability: Ohio State 88%, Minnesota 12%

With or without J.T. Barrett, there's still a lot to like about an Ohio State team that is back to playing like something close to its peak. Cardale Jones is going to have his efficiency tested by a team that doesn't allow a ton of huge strikes and attacks receivers with aggressive press coverage. (Miss you, Devin Smith.)

Ohio State struggled against Minnesota last year for a number of reasons. David Cobb had a career day against the Buckeyes, ripping off good chunks of yards seemingly every time he touched the ball, and Maxx Williams was enough of a big-body receiving threat to prevent Ohio State from stacking the box on every single play. Couple that with the fact that the Gophers are one of the only teams in the country better-suited to snow football than the Buckeyes, and you've got a much closer game than feels safe.

But those two are gone, and in their places are a group of guys who are unproven against teams of Ohio State's caliber. This one won't be pretty, but there's no reason to think the Buckeyes don't slam the door sometime in the third quarter and walk away the victors.

Predict the score: