On the defensive side of the ball, it’s been a very weird year for the Ohio State Buckeyes. In the Urban Meyer era, and for most of the Jim Tressel era, this was a very stingy defense. Big plays would happen every now and then, but it wasn’t a constant theme; you weren’t looking for it to happen, as if it were a routine.
Now, there are big plays happening every week. Oregon State was able to do it in Week 1, and both TCU and Penn State broke off 93-yard plays for touchdown. The Horned Frogs took their 93-yarder to the house on the ground, while the Nittany Lions did it in the air. Even though the Buckeyes didn’t give up a 90ish yard play last week against Indiana, they did give up a handful of chunk plays. Eight passes for the Hoosiers went for 15 yards or more, and three rushes went for 10 yards or more.
This week, the Bucks take on a 3-2 Minnesota Golden Gophers squad. Unlike the last two games (Penn State and Indiana), the Gophers bring a true passing quarterback.
Zack Annexstad is the man under center for the Gophers. He’s a true freshman, and slingshotted up the depth chart over training camp due to there not being a true veteran on the roster. While he doesn’t have a lot of experience, he’s been the showrunner for this Gopher offense through five games. Annexstad has passed for 924 yards and eight touchdowns on 75-of-144 passing. He’s also thrown five interceptions, too. Doing the math—or in this case, peeking at the stat sheets—shows that Annexstad is averaging 184.8 yards in the air per contest. That’s not a bad average to have, especially for a freshman in the Big Ten. But, the competition faced hasn’t been anywhere near what Ohio State will bring on Saturday afternoon in Columbus.
Last week, Annexstad upped his average with a 218-yard, three TD performance at home against Iowa. However, he threw three of his five interceptions to the Hawkeyes, and the Gophers ended up taking a loss, 48-31. Not only did the Gophers lose out on bringing the Floyd of Rosedale back to Minneapolis, but the Hawkeyes gave the PJ Fleck-coached program their second-straight loss of the season. Now, the Gophers’ boat may go over the waterfall, as they have the Buckeyes and Nebraska Cornhuskers on tap—and both are road games.
It’s a trial by fire for Annexstad, but to get to this point (a starting QB) early in his career, you have to be doing something correct. Even in the first loss of the season to Maryland, he made some highlight worthy plays.
Having receiving options is essential for any QB. Just look at what Dwayne Haskins can do. He has a slew of talented wideouts that can make catches in traffic, and pick up huge chunks of yards after the catch. The Gophers may not have a KJ Hill or Binjimen Victor, but they do have a couple key pass catchers. Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman are the two top receivers in terms of receptions. In receiving yards, Johnson leads Bateman by a large margin, 402-257. For the Buckeye secondary, shutting down Johnson will be key. Bottle him up, and the Gopher receiving game will suffer; let him make some big plays, and the Gophers stand a chance to give a good fight for a quarter or two.
Don’t really expect Annexstad to take off on the ground. Mobility in a quarterback is a nice feature to have, but the freshman has been playing on an injured ankle for the past few games. Taking five sacks last week against the Hawkeyes probably isn’t good for your health, and with the likes of Chase Young barreling down this week, it would be safe to assume that the Buckeye defense will get at least a couple sacks this week in The ‘Shoe.
Earlier this season, Artur Sitkowski, Rutgers’ freshman QB, was rocked by the Ohio State defense. Since then, the Scarlet Knights haven’t done so hot, losing four more in a row. It’s a lot of pressure for a freshman to roll into a game and shine. It’s increasingly more pressurized when you have to face the No. 3 team in the nation.
Minnesota has a tall order this week with Ohio State. But given the Buckeyes inability to stop huge plays, it wouldn’t be surprising that Annexstad pulled off a couple 30 or 40-yard completions. In the end, though, OSU should have little problem getting to 7-0 on the season.