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Ohio State vs. Minnesota: 2018 game preview and prediction

Fresh off a 23-point win over Indiana last week, Ohio State will meet up with Minnesota for the first time since 2015.

NCAA Football: Miami (Ohio) at Minnesota Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Ohio State looked like they might be suffering from a bit of a hangover last week against Indiana after their thrilling comeback win over Penn State the week before, but the Buckeyes tightened up on defense in the second half to extend their winning streak to 23 games over the Hoosiers. After leading just 28-20 at halftime, Ohio State put the clamps on the Indiana defense, give up just 89 yards to the Hoosiers in the second half.

Dandy Dwayne

While Ohio State’s defense in the second half was a big story, Dwayne Haskins got all of the headlines with another masterful performance. The redshirt sophomore quarterback passed for 455 yards, falling just four yards short of overtaking Art Schlichter for most passing yards in a single game in school history. Haskins finished the game with 462 yards of total offense, which eclipsed J.T. Barrett’s school record of 423 total yards, which was set last year against Penn State (Schlichter had -46 yards rushing in his school-record 485-yard passing day in 1981).

Haskins also threw six touchdowns passes in the 49-26 victory over Indiana on Saturday, which tied a school record for most in a single game. Haskins joins Kenny Guiton, who threw six touchdown passes against Florida A&M in 2013, as well as Barrett, who accomplished the feat twice during his Ohio State career, at the top of the list.

With his outstanding effort on Saturday, Haskins now has 25 passing touchdowns this season, which is the most in the country. For his efforts, Haskins was named Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week, marking the fourth time this season that he has earned at least a share of the honor.

Hot hands

As he had all season, Haskins spread the football around on Saturday— nine Buckeyes caught at least one pass— however, the main focus in the passing game continues to be H-back Parris Campbell. The speedy receiver caught nine passes for 142 yards and two touchdowns.

Campbell has done some of the best work of his Ohio State career over the past three games, where he has caught 24 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns. The 142 receiving yards that Campbell finished with marked the fourth time that he has eclipsed the century mark in his Ohio State career, and fell just five yards short of equaling his career-high, which he set earlier this season against Tulane.

After hauling in just four catches over the previous three games, senior wide receiver Terry McLaurin caught four passes for 59 yards and two touchdowns against the Hoosiers. Even though McLaurin hasn’t seen many targets over the last month, the work he has been doing blocking for other wide receivers has been invaluable. The four catches by McLaurin against Indiana equaled his season-high, which he set in the season opener against Oregon State.

Shared workload

Ohio State is still working on getting its running game going, but when you can throw the football like Haskins has been so far this season, it isn’t quite as big of a priority as normal. So far this season J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber have combined for 882 rushing yards and seven touchdowns on the ground.

Dobbins saw a season-high 26 carries against the Hoosiers, but had trouble finding traction, rushing for just 82 yards. If the sophomore running back is able to find some space against the Golden Gophers, he has a chance at joining Mike Weber in Ohio State’s 2,000 yard rushing club. Dobbins is currently just 135 rushing yards away from the 2,000 yard mark. Ohio State has never had two running backs on the same team with over 2,000 career rushing yards.

Pryor knowledge

At halftime of last week’s game, Ohio State’s defense was catching a lot of flack for giving up over 300 yards and 20 points to Indiana. Then with the return of safety Isaiah Pryor from a first-half suspension (due to a targeting penalty in the second half against Penn State), the Buckeye defense got their act together, allowing just 89 yards and six points to the Hoosiers. Pryor ended up finishing the game with three tackles and a defensed pass in the half of football that he was available for.

Sack happy

With a sack against Indiana, defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones finally took over the season sack lead from Nick Bosa, who has missed the last three games for the Buckeyes. Joining Jones in the sack column against the Hoosiers was linebacker Tuf Borland, who recorded a sack for the second game in a row, as well as fellow linebacker Pete Werner. Ohio State now has 22 sacks this season, while they have given up just eight to opponents.

The big issue

Despite being able to put tremendous pressure on opposing quarterbacks, Ohio State still has to work on their propensity to give up big plays. Against Indiana, Ohio State gave up five plays of at least 30 yards, but luckily for the Buckeyes only one of those went for a touchdown. The total brought Ohio State’s total of 30-yard plays given up this year to 20, which ranks 121st among FBS teams.

Series history

Ohio State will now look to build on some of the strides they made in the second half against IU as they take on Minnesota this week. The Golden Gophers are fresh off of a 48-31 loss to Iowa last week in Minneapolis. After starting their season 3-0, Minnesota has lost their last two games, with both coming in Big Ten play.

The Buckeyes have dominated Minnesota over the years, winning their last 10 matchups with the Golden Gophers. Overall, Ohio State holds a 44-7 edge in the series. The expansion of the Big Ten has cut down on the meetings between the schools, with the last game between the Buckeyes and Golden Gophers coming back in 2015, which Ohio State won 28-14 in Columbus.

The head oarsman

P.J. Fleck is in his second year at Minnesota, and he has already faced plenty of challenges on his way to posting a 8-9 record. The former Ohio State GA came to Minneapolis by way of Western Michigan, where he not only was 30-22 as head coach, but he was also able to lead the Broncos to a Cotton Bowl bid in 2016.

If Fleck is able to develop talent like he did at Western Michigan, the Golden Gophers could be in good shape down the road. Minnesota currently has 112 players on their roster, but 51.7 percent of those players are freshmen, which is the highest percentage in the country. Overall, 69.6 percent of Minnesota’s players are underclassmen, which is nice and the tenth highest among FBS teams.

Walking on

One of those freshman is quarterback Zack Annexstad, who is believed to be just the second-ever true freshman walk-on quarterback to start a season opener, with the other being Baker Mayfield, who started for Texas Tech to open the 2013 season. Annexstad is the first Minnesota freshman to start a season opener since 1980. All four quarterbacks on Minnesota’s roster are freshmen.

After starting the season with four touchdowns and no interceptions in the first three games, Annexstad has found the difficulty turned up in conference play, throwing four touchdowns and five interceptions over the last two games. With three more touchdown passes, Annexstad will move into sole possession of second place in school history in terms of touchdown passes thrown by freshman quarterbacks.

Two talented targets

The majority of Annexstad’s success this year can be credited to two wide receivers, Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman. Last week, Johnson caught six passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against Iowa, giving him his third 100-yard receiving game this season. Johnson has caught 14 touchdowns in his Minnesota career, and the next one that he hauls in will move him into a tie for fifth all-time in school history.

The other Minnesota wide receiver who has done some damage this year is freshman Rashod Bateman, who has reeled in 27 catches for 257 yards and three touchdowns. With the TD that he caught against Maryland earlier this year, Bateman became the first Minnesota wide receiver aside from Johnson to catch a touchdown pass since 2016, a span of 16 games.

After Johnson and Bateman, the pickings get pretty slim at wide receiver for the Golden Gophers. Freshman Chris Autman-Bell has come on as of late, pulling in seven catches for 131 yards over the last two games, but other than that, there has been next to no production in the passing game. Of the seven other Minnesota players to catch a pass this year, their combined total has been 11 receptions for 103 yards.

A battered backfield

Minnesota is going to need more production out of their wide receivers going forward since they’ve been bitten by the injury bug at running back. Shannon Brooks had rushed for at least 360 yards and five touchdowns in each of his first three years with the school, but he has yet to see the field this year do to injury.

Early on in the season the loss of Brooks was cushioned by Rodney Smith, who rushed for 1,158 yards in 2016, and 977 yards in 2017. Smith started off the season strong, rushing for 153 yards in the season opener against New Mexico State, but he was lost for the year after suffering an injury in the first quarter the following week against Fresno State.

Trying to pick up the slack for Smith and Brooks have been Bryce Williams and Mohamed Ibrahim. Williams ran for 87 yards in relief of Smith against Fresno State, and followed that performance up with a career-high 141 yards against Miami (OH). Williams’ carries have been cut down considerably the last two games with the return of Ibrahim, who was unavailable against Fresno State or Miami.

Ibrahim was given the bulk of the carries in the loss to Maryland, toting the rock 26 times for 92 yards against the Terrapins. With the Golden Gophers trailing Iowa last week, Minnesota didn’t run the football as much. Ibrahim had a team-high 13 carries for 62 yards in the loss to the Hawkeyes.

With both running backs still freshmen, they’ll face another tough test on Saturday in trying to solve an Ohio State defense that gave up just 84 yards on the ground to Indiana last week. One reason for optimism for the Golden Gophers on Saturday when it comes to running the football, is they’ll have 6-foot-9, 400 pound freshman Daniel Faalele starting at tackle. The massive Australian has appeared in two games for Minnesota so far this year, but will be making his first start at any level, having only played in his first football game last year as a high school senior at the IMG Academy.

Playing clean

One thing that P.J. Fleck’s teams at Minnesota have done well during his short tenure has been not beating themselves with penalties. The Golden Gophers have only committed 20 penalties so far this year, which is the sixth-least in the nation. Last year Minnesota was the least-penalized team in the country, only committed 39 penalties in 12 games.

The most impressive stat when it comes to Minnesota and penalties is junior linebacker Thomas Barber has never been called for a penalty on defense, despite playing over 1,000 defensive snaps in his career. The only penalty Barber has been guilty of during his career with the Golden Gophers came back in 2016, when he was called for holding on special teams.

A talented trio

Barber’s instincts are one of the reasons why linebacker is the backbone of Minnesota’s defense. Last year Barber led the Golden Gophers with 112 tackles, and this year he is second on the team with 33 tackles. So far, the leading tackler for Minnesota has been senior linebacker Blake Cashman. Not only is Cashman leading the Golden Gophers with 34 tackles, but he also shares the team-lead with 6.5 tackles-for-loss.

Tied with Cashman for the TFL lead is Carter Coughlin, who has started at defensive end for Minnesota the last four games. The Golden Gophers haven’t been able to put much heat on opposing quarterbacks so far this year, but when they have it has been from Coughlin, who has a team-high five sacks. Aside from Coughlin’s output, Minnesota has recorded just three other sacks so far this year.

Last line of defense

Minnesota desperately needs to create more quarterback pressure to help out their defensive backs. The unit was hurt recently when Antoine Winfield Jr. was lost for the season to injury. The son of the former Buckeye had recorded 17 tackles in the four games before his injury, as well as a crucial interception to secure the win over Fresno State earlier this year.

Now that Winfield Jr. is out for the year, even more responsibility will be placed on defensive back Terell Smith, who has an interception and six passes broken up this year. Aside from Smith’s output this year, Minnesota has just nine pass breakups through five games. Smith is just a freshman and is looking like he could be the future of Minnesota’s secondary.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State 39, Minnesota 16

Win Probability: Ohio State 91.3%

Much like last week’s game, which saw the numbers predict a 39-18 Ohio State win, the Buckeyes should have little trouble against the Golden Gophers. This week could see Ohio State with a little crisper play, considering that they not only don’t have the hangover from the emotional Penn State win to deal with, but they’ll also have safety Isaiah Pryor available for the whole game. The Ohio State defense was noticeably better last week in the second half after Pryor finished serving his suspension.

Minnesota will give Ohio State a spirited battle, but they don’t have quite the horses that even Indiana has, so it is hard to see the Golden Gophers keeping things close for as long as the Hoosiers did. With the youth and injuries that P.J. Fleck’s crew is going through, Ohio State should be able to secure a big victory ahead of next week’s road showdown in primetime with Purdue.