The No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes remained unblemished with a perfect 9-0 record after topping the Minnesota Golden Gophers 28-14 on Saturday in Columbus. Before the game, The Lantern’s sports editors Ryan Cooper and Kevin Stankiewicz dished out five things to watch for in the matchup. Below is how those items transpired on the turf.
Will Cardale Jones take advantage?
Redshirt junior Cardale Jones, back in a familiar spot as he filled in for the suspended J.T. Barrett at starting quarterback, got off to a sour start on Saturday.
Jones and the offense struggled to manufacture anything resembling a legitimate drive early on. In each of OSU’s first four series, junior Cameron Johnston ended up punting.
Things finally got rolling for Jones on the first offensive possession following junior safety Vonn Bell’s 16-yard interception return for a score. On 3rd-and-18, with the pocket collapsing, Jones stepped up in the pocket and ran for 19 yards and a first down. That play proved to be the catalyst for Jones to break out of the funk he had been in early.
Jones proceeded to lead the team down the field for the offense’s first touchdown of the game, a 15-yarder from junior running back Ezekiel Elliott.
On the night, the Cleveland native finished 12-of-22 for 187 passing yards and a score. Jones also showed off a little bit of his running ability, turning in 65 yards — 38 of which came game-clinching touchdown run on a critical 3rd-and-9 inside of two minutes remaining.
“That was good for him, good for our team,” OSU offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said about Jones’ run. “I was really happy that we closed out the game like that and he was a part of that.”
Even with that high note, Jones was not overly satisfied with his return to the starting job, calling his performance a “below average” one.
OSU coach Urban Meyer said Barrett will be in contention to start next week against Illinois. Jones, however, said he was not worried about trying to prove himself when he stepped on the turf today.
“I’m not trying to make my case,” he said. “I’m just trying to do what I have to do to help my team win.”
It might not have been his best outing, and the stat sheet was not stuffed, but indeed Jones did what he needed to do for his team to win on Saturday.
Braxton playing quarterback
After the way OSU coaches and players were discussing the possibilities in which Braxton Miller could be used against Minnesota — combined with him being listed at No. 2 on the depth chart at quarterback — anticipation was at an all-time high for the redshirt senior H-back.
For the first half that anticipation was, well, just anticipation, as Miller had just five yards on direct snap attempts.
In the second half, Miller only picked up six rushing yards on two additional carries, but the Huber Heights, Ohio, native did contribute in the passing game — except it was by catching a pass, not throwing one like many thought the former quarterback-turned-receiver might do.
Miller hauled in a 45-yard pass from Jones on a skinny post to move OSU down to the Minnesota 24-yard line, but after being tackled, Miller remained supine on the ground after his helmet appeared to careen into the turf. He was able to walk off the field with assistance.
Meyer said he talked with Miller after the game. The coach said he thinks Miller will be “all right,” but he will know more on Sunday.
Overall, it was an average performance at best by Miller, but his return to throwing passes, like many thought might happen against the Golden Gophers, has yet to happen.
But it is a legitimate possibility for it occur before the season is over.
“I would like to see him do it sometime,” Warinner said. “But it just depends on when we’re all ready to call that.”
Red zone efficiency
Inefficiency in the red zone was the Achilles’ heal for the Buckeyes during many of Jones’ early starts in 2015. Without Barrett able to suit up, questions about whether those struggles would reappear existed throughout the week.
Meyer admitted the coaches were discussing using Miller in a similar role to what Barrett had against Maryland and Penn State. That, however, did not happen because Jones and the offense showed no signs of weakness in the first two trips inside the 20-yard line on Saturday.
It took nearly 29 minutes to enter the red zone, but when OSU did, things clicked early on.
To get there, Jones found Marshall for a 44-yard gain. On the ensuing play, Jones handed it to Elliott, who started running up the middle before abruptly cutting right at nearly a 90-degree angle, before turning it back up field for a 15-yard touchdown, giving OSU a 14-0 lead.
In the second half, OSU’s first trip into the red zone came after a 10-yard completion from Jones to redshirt junior Michael Thomas. Following a six-yard run by Elliott and a penalty on Marshall that took away a Thomas touchdown reception, Jones scrambled for six yards before finding Thomas in the end zone for a touchdown that stood. The play extended OSU’s lead to 21-0.
The next time the Buckeyes proceeded to the red zone was not as successful. They left with zero points after a missed 35-yard field goal from redshirt senior kicker Jack Willoughby.
Though they did not reach it often, the struggles in the red zone that plagued the Scarlet and Gray during Jones’ early games did not show themselves for the most part, as a mixture of Elliott and underneath passing was the remedy for OSU on Saturday.
Can Jack Willoughby be trusted?
The underwhelming campaign for Willoughby continued on Saturday. In his only field goal attempt of the game, the transfer from Duke missed a 35-yarder wide to the right.
The miss dropped Willoughby’s total on the season to seven makes in 11 attempts. It was his first miss on an attempt less than 40 yards since arriving in Columbus.
The Princeton, New Jersey, native also had a kickoff sail out out bounds in second quarter. Willoughby did connect on all of his point-after attempts, though.
Another shaky performance against the Golden Gophers from Willoughby did little to determine whether or not Meyer can trust the kicking game as the season winds down.
Can Webb rescue the depleted secondary?
With season-ending injuries to defensive backs Cam Burrows and Erick Smith, Meyer saw it necessary to reinstate sophomore cornerback Damon Webb into the lineup.
Webb filled in for a handful of plays, which included solid one-on-one coverage to break up a third-down pass early in the fourth quarter.
“It’s nice to have Damon back, a guy that has a good sense of his spot, so it’s going to be all right,” Bell said.
Webb’s reemergence helped the defense, but it was Bell, a stalwart in the secondary, who picked up most of the slack.
The Rossville, Georgia, native made the biggest play of the game midway through the second quarter when he opened up the scoring with a pick-six.
“It’s a huge momentum shifter,” OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “There’s no bigger play for us defensively than to actually turn the momentum around and score.”
Fickell said Bell has emerged as a special player on the OSU squad not just because of what he does on Saturdays but how he prepares in the days leading up to each game.
“He’s become a student of the game,” Fickell said. “The way he practices, not just the way he plays, the way he prepares and what he does is a direct reflection of what he does in the field.”
While OSU’s secondary remains thin even with the return of Webb, performances like Bell’s could stand as the difference between sinking and swimming.