The Ohio State offense put forth a shaky performance with redshirt junior quarterback Cardale Jones back at the helm, but it didn’t need too much to hold off the visiting Minnesota Golden Gophers on Saturday.
Jones, who temporarily regained his starting job in the absence of the suspended J.T. Barrett — who was cited for an OVI during OSU’s bye week, — was 12-of-22 for 187 yards, which was enough to improve to 11-0 as a starter.
Despite the win, Jones assessed his performance as “below average” after the game.
Minnesota (4-5, 1-4) struggled from the get-go to move the ball on offense, and had just 110 yards through three quarters. However, a 14-point fourth quarter made things closer for the No. 3 Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0) than it seemed like it would be for much of the evening.
“Not what we would expect,” OSU coach Urban Meyer said. “We expect to play better. I hate to say that because that sometimes sounds like we’re taking away from our opponent … but just expect much more efficiency out of our offense.”
The game started out with both offenses having a very difficult time establishing rhythm, as neither team got on the scoreboard in the first 15 minutes.
The Buckeyes managed just 31 yards of offense in the opening frame, while Minnesota countered with 56. Jones struggled early, completing just one of his first three passes, an 11-yard slant route to redshirt junior receiver Michael Thomas. He was also sacked twice in the quarter.
“It was all self-inflicted wounds,” Jones said of the first quarter. “It took us awhile to settle down, to get into a rhythm.”
The beginning of the second quarter featured the first threat of the game for each side, but neither try was successful.
The Buckeyes drove the ball into Minnesota territory only to have a third-down run halted and had to punt, while Minnesota redshirt junior quarterback Mitch Leidner orchestrated an 11-play, 47-yard drive that ended with a missed 50-yard field goal try.
With the offense unable to muster any points, junior safety Vonn Bell took matters into his own hands, with an assist from senior linebacker Joshua Perry, on Minnesota’s next drive.
Perry crushed Leidner with a hit deep in Minnesota territory, enabling Bell to intercept the pass at the 16-yard line and take it back to the end zone.
“I think it jump-started us,” Bell said. “I just want to be that spark and the guy that they look to to make plays. So I did that and we got going a little bit.”
The score was originally wiped out with a targeting flag on Perry for his hit on Leidner, resulting in an ejection. After a replay review, however, it was found that Perry did not aim for the quarterback’s head, overturning both the ejection and the penalty and giving OSU a 7-0 lead.
With the lead in hand, the OSU offense settled down in its final drive of the half, traveling 77 yards in seven plays. A 44-yard completion from Jones to redshirt sophomore H-back Jalin Marshall put OSU in the red zone, where it scored on the ensuing play, a 15-yard scamper by junior running back Ezekiel Elliott.
With the first offensive score, the Buckeyes took a 14-0 lead into the locker room. Jones finished the half 6-of-10 for 88 yards, half of which came on his completion to Marshall. He was also sacked three times.
“I just think (the offensive issues) triggered from Cardale not being too comfortable in the pocket,” Elliott said. “I think he was sacked four times and that’s a credit to their scheme. They outsmarted us sometimes.”
Leidner completed nine of 17 first-half passes for 82 yards and the pick-six. Sophomore linebacker Raekwon McMillan led all defensive players with eight total tackles in the opening half.
The Buckeyes added seven points to their lead on their second drive coming out of the break, as Jones capped off a nine-play, 59-yard drive with a six-yard connection to Thomas on a fade route.
Though the OSU offense’s struggles continued for the rest of the quarter, including a lost fumble by Jones, the defense made sure the 21-point lead was more than enough. In the third quarter, Minnesota had a total of minus-four yards.
“I give the defense a lot of credit,” Elliott said. “They stepped up, put points on the board and did a great job of slowing their offense down when we didn’t really have much momentum.”
The Golden Gophers finally broke through on its first drive of the fourth quarter, traveling 77 yards to score. Leidner found senior receiver KJ Maye for four yards to cut OSU’s lead back to 14 points and end the shutout.
Later in the quarter, the visitors continued to make things interesting, as a 57-yard pass moved the Golden Gophers inside the red zone. From there, Leidner connected with freshman receiver Rashad Still for a 10-yard score to make it a 21-14 game with 2:10 remaining.
“We probably relaxed a little bit,” OSU defensive coordinator Luke Fickell said. “You’ve got to give them credit, they did a good job, they didn’t quit, they didn’t pack it in, they kept fighting, kept swinging, which is what you’d expect.”
The ensuing onside kick went out of bounds, but with two timeouts the Golden Gophers still had a chance.
After stopping two runs by Elliott to set up a third down, Jones faked a handoff to Elliott before running it himself up the middle. The Cleveland native took it 38 yards to the end zone untouched, putting the game away at 28-14.
“We knew they were going to be blitzing and it was called,” Meyer said. “That was a direct run, cue run where you just gap everybody down. We knew they’d be all over the place. And we wanted at that point to keep the clock running.”
Leidner finished the game 27-of-44 for 281 yards for the Golden Gophers, with two touchdowns and an interception. He left the game midway through the fourth quarter after a hit from OSU junior defensive end Joey Bosa but returned on the following drive.
Elliott led the way on the ground for the Buckeyes, piling up 114 yards on 26 carries. The performance extended his streak of games with over 100 yards rushing to 14.
“He’s an animal,” Meyer said about Elliott. “I love that kid. He’s a team player.”
Following a 45-yard reception midway through the fourth quarter, redshirt senior H-back Braxton Miller had to be helped off the field and did not return after hitting the turf hard with the back of his helmet.
After the game, Meyer said he thinks the redshirt senior will be “all right,” but he will learn more on Sunday.
The Buckeyes are set to be back in action on the road on Nov. 14, when it travels to Champaign, Illinois, to take on the Fighting Illini. Kickoff is slated for noon.