MINNEAPOLIS — After 30 minutes of football, Minnesota had 118 yards on the ground.
Up until Saturday’s matchup with the Golden Gophers at TCF Bank Stadium, Ohio State had only been giving up 125.2 rushing yards per game — let alone in one half.
Despite No. 8 OSU holding on for a 31-24 win in frigid temperatures, senior cornerback Doran Grant said the rushing output early in the game was hard to take, especially for senior defensive lineman Michael Bennett.
“Mike Bennett took it very personally — he said some words I’m not gonna say right now,” Grant said about Bennett’s words to his teammates during halftime. “But the second half, we did a better job stopping the run.”
Bennett said giving up 118 first-half yards to the Golden Gophers was simply unacceptable.
“I don’t know what makes the rest of the guys mad,” he said after the game. “But watching the running back run up the middle of our defense pisses me off a lot.”
Most of that yardage came by way of Minnesota senior running back David Cobb. He had 96 yards on the ground by halftime and scored both of his team’s first-half touchdowns. Those touchdowns — one of which capped off a 39-yard drive that saw Cobb carry the ball on all five plays — allowed the Golden Gophers to make up for an early 14-0 run by the Buckeyes.
“I felt like there was a lot of apathy, like, ‘We only let ‘em get 14 points,’” Bennett said of OSU’s halftime attitude. “And I felt like we shouldn’t let them get any.”
He said it wasn’t the first time he’s spoken up about his team’s play, but added he was particularly enthusiastic because run defense is his area of expertise.
“If they’re running the ball, I’m gonna speak up,” he said.
Redshirt-freshman linebacker Darron Lee said Bennett shared his thoughts when players expressed that the Buckeyes were “fine” at halftime.
“Guys around were saying, ‘Hey, you know, we’re fine, we’re fine,’” Lee said after the game. “But Mike took the lead and took the role like, ‘We’re not OK.’
“Guys weren’t really doing their jobs, doing their assignments. We had this look around the locker room it’s like, ‘All right, just do your job, and let’s buckle down and let’s shut these guys down.’”
Sophomore defensive lineman Joey Bosa said Bennett took the vocal lead, but added that others on the team felt the same. He said that led to a new attitude when the Buckeyes took the field after the break.
“Definitely came out with nice intensity in the second half,” Bosa said.
After another 15 minutes of game time — accounting for the entire third quarter — Minnesota had added just 23 more yards on the ground. In that quarter, Cobb was held to just 15 yards on his five carries.
Bennett said the Buckeyes’ play in the second half came after he led their “biggest call to action” in the locker room.
“I think guys really responded to what I said and rallied around it,” he said. “And the other leaders stepped up, and the young guys really kinda took that seriously and started getting a chip on their shoulder, and we went and played this second half the way we should.”
But even after the strong third-quarter showing, the Buckeyes gave up a total of 218 yards on the ground. The fourth quarter saw Minnesota run for 77 yards, 31 of which came on a quarterback scramble by redshirt-sophomore Mitch Leidner.
“I think we got stuck in a rough call and he took advantage of it,” Bennett said of Leidner’s run. “That happens in football, but … what’s most frustrating is it boosted their rushing stats, because I feel like in the second half, we shut down the run.”
Bennett finished the game with just two total tackles — one for a loss — but his vocal leadership helped spark an improved second-half performance for the Buckeye defense.
OSU gave up 10 points in the second half, and seven of those points came two plays after a fumble by redshirt-freshman H-back Jalin Marshall gave Minnesota the ball in the red zone. The other three came on a late-game, second-down field goal when the Golden Gophers were trying to preserve time and get the ball back for a last-ditch comeback try.
Cobb finished the day with 145 yards and three touchdowns on the ground while Leidner totaled 56 yards rushing.
Before Saturday, OSU hadn’t given up more than 178 rushing yards since the season-opener on Aug. 30, when Navy’s triple-option attack helped the Midshipmen to 370 yards on the ground.
But even though the Buckeyes held the Golden Gophers to just 85 passing yards, Lee said the success they had running the ball early is what will stick out in their minds.
“Pass defense is pass defense, but you know you don’t ever want to let a team run all over you,” he said.
After the Buckeyes’ close win, they are scheduled to return to Columbus on Nov. 22 to take on Indiana at Ohio Stadium. The game’s start time has not yet been announced.