Before each Minnesota football game, GopherDigest will ask five questions of an opposing beat writer. This week, we spoke with Ohio State beat writer Ryan Ginn, journalist of Ohio State's Scout.com site (Columbus, Ohio) to preview the Gophers' Week 10 home game against the 8-0 Ohio State Buckeyes.
1) After a 14-1 national championship season last year, the Buckeyes are off to another hot start with an 8-0 record and is ranked #1 in the country. What's the biggest difference you see between this year and last year's team?
RG: Right now, the biggest thing to me is just how loose and relaxed last year’s team was able to be on and off the field compared to this year’s group. I’ve always thought the “you get every team’s best shot” thing was a cliché, but every week you can see the pressure of defending a national championship manifest itself in some form. It’s not just an effort and intensity thing from opponents, either. Offensive coordinator Ed Warinner said opposing defenses always start out with looks that they’ve never put on film before, forcing the Ohio State offensive staff to make in-game adjustments. The Buckeyes are averaging 5.6 points in the first quarter this season, which is way worse than their averages for any other quarter. Those slow starts led to players pressing and second-guessing themselves, and it took a long time to start to sort that out. And now they have a new problem to deal with.
2) The big news out of the bye for Ohio State was that starting quarterback J.T. Barrett will be suspended for the Minnesota game and lose his scholarship for J-term, what do the fans and local media think about this move?
RG: There will always be fans on both sides of that fence, but I think for the most part people think it’s fair. I thought there was a chance it might be two games, but one game has been a pretty standard drunk driving punishment for college football players like Alabama’s Geno Smith, Stanford’s Shayne Skov and Michigan’s Fitz Toussaint (not to mention MSU’s Macgarrett Kings missing no game time for either of his alcohol-related arrests) so I think most people don’t have an issue with it. I’m a little shakier on the reduction of scholarship because it amounts to a multi-thousand dollar fine of an otherwise unpaid player that Ohio State will still likely use heavily the rest of the season, but that’s a possibility you have to live with when you make such a poor decision.
3) How has the offense looked under Cardale Jones compared to J.T. Barrett this season and why did Urban Meyer make the switch to begin with?
RG: It hasn’t looked great under Jones, but it looked even worse at the beginning of the season under Barrett when he got his occasional chances. His completion rate in the early games was about 10 percent worse than last season and he threw just one touchdown in three quarters after Cardale Jones was benched against Northern Illinois. He said he was forcing things too much to try to win back his job, and he got better in that regard once he became the team’s red-zone option. His play in those situations ultimately helped him return to the starting role, and he was going to keep that spot after routing Rutgers 49-7.
Jones certainly helped Barrett get his job back, though. He doesn’t have a deep threat like he did with Devin Smith in 2014, and he’s taking too long to get rid of the ball. The biggest issue though is that he often leads the team into opposing territory pretty efficiently but hasn’t gotten the job done in the red zone and on third down nearly as well as Ohio State would like. Those are not good spots to fail in, so off to the bench he went.
I’m also interested to see if he plays any differently knowing that there’s no chance Barrett comes in behind him. That was the case during his stellar playoff run but obviously wasn’t so this fall.
4) Ohio State is on average out-scoring their opponents 38-15, what can you tell me about this Ohio State defense and who are a few names to keep an eye on outside of Joey Bosa?
RG: The Ohio State defense has come a long way from being the weak link on that 2013 squad that eventually ruined a 12-0 start with loses to Michigan State and Clemson. They’re strong in all three units, and that’s a big credit to co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, who arrived in 2014 to fix the broken pass defense. The defensive backfield is a little thin right now from a depth standpoint – the two best backups at safety are both out for the year – but all the starters are fully healthy and playing well. The linebackers are also solid, but the real star of the show is the defensive line.
Bosa is certainly a player to watch, but so is every other lineman as a result of his presence in the trenches. Defensive ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard have shined, and defensive tackle Adolphus Washington is a force inside. You might not hear these names called the most often on Saturday, but Darron Lee at linebacker and Vonn Bell at safety are the two big-play guys who can force a turnover out of nowhere.
5) What are the keys for the Buckeyes if they're going to beat the Gophers at home and what's your prediction for the Minnesota vs. Ohio State game and why?
RG: For me, it always starts with the offensive line. If the big men up front are bossing the opposing linemen, it’ll likely lead to another big day for Ezekiel Elliott (who has rushed for more than 100 yards in every game this season). More importantly, though, a good showing from the offensive line will give Cardale Jones enough time to make the correct decision and make good throws. I’d also note that the Buckeyes will have to go into the game prepared for a real fight. I thought in 2013 that the Gophers played incredibly under Tracy Claeys’ direction when Jerry Kill was out, and he had them ready to play again last week against Michigan.
Prediction: This won’t be a walk in the park, but I have Ohio State winning 31-24.