Ten Pressing Questions: OSU at Minnesota

As we look toward today's game with Minnesota (noon, ABC), we look back and see that the last two meetings between Ohio State and Minnesota at the Metrodome were decided by three points. Could kicker Josh Huston figure in today's final outcome? Click here for more.

As we all count down the hours until kickoff for Saturday's game between No. 12 Ohio State and Minnesota (noon, ABC), I came up with my usual game day theme, Ten Pressing Questions, to think about what we may look for during today's big game.

As always, I'll come back on Sunday with my thoughts on how each of these questions were answered during my Sunday Morning Quarterback column.

Without any further adieu, here we go:

1. Which Troy Smith will show up for the Buckeyes? -- I don't care what you say: Troy Smith is getting better with each passing week. Three of his last four games, actually, have been reasonably good. He performed admirably in the home wins over Iowa and Michigan State and had one of his best showings yet last week at Indiana.

Smith still seems to be good for about one turnover a game – even on his best days. And with so much of OSU's offense built around him, I guess that one turnover a game is something Jim Tressel and the offensive coaching staff will have to learn to live with. The key is keeping it to one – or, better yet, zero.

I think Smith is poised to have a nice game against Minnesota's upstart defense. The Buckeyes should be able to spread the field, opening up running lanes for Smith on the quarterback draw and sweep. Plus, I think the match-ups in the secondary favor OSU. Smith needs to deliver the ball on time and let his receivers do the work.

2. Can Antonio Pittman approach or eclipse the 100-yard mark? -- Pittman has had three 100-yard games in four Big Ten outings. He is coming off a 133-yard game at Indiana. Again, Minnesota can be gashed a bit with the run, especially if the field is spread and we know OSU favors that formation about half the time.

We are watching Pittman come of age each week before our very eyes. I think that maturation process will continue at Minnesota.

Perhaps the bigger question for Pittman should be: Is this the week he puts the ball into the end zone? I think that would be a big relief for him and a truer sign that this offense is firing on most of its cylinders.

3. Will Ted Ginn Jr. and/or Santonio Holmes get loose and make a big play on offense? -- Holmes has three touchdown grabs over the last two weeks and may well be the most polished receiver in the Big Ten. I think most OSU fans would like to see Smith continue to feed him. If he can get, say, six or seven catches, I think the results will speak for themselves.

Likewise, Ginn is starting smile more as he is finding success on offense and in the return game. The Buckeyes need to continue to ride this horse as far as it will take them. Maybe his two long returns from last week are just a taste of what's to come down the stretch.

4. Can the Buckeyes avoid costly mistakes? -- The win over Michigan State was marred by four turnovers. Last week's game was marked by two turnovers and eight costly penalties, one of which negated a 98-yard kick return touchdown by Ginn.

Turnovers and penalties have not been a big part of the OSU success story under Tressel. In fact, his style of play lends itself to a very small margin for error. Early this year, Minnesota had a reputation as a ball hawking defense. They have kind of cooled off in that regard now that Big Ten play has set in. But you know takeaways are in their pedigree so ball security will be at a premium.

Some of the penalties – two clipping calls and the personal foul on the Ginn return – have been clear mental mistakes. OSU needs to be strong mentally in a tough environment at the Metrodome.

5. Will Ohio State contain Minnesota's awe inspiring rushing offense? -- What happens when the irresistible force meets the unmovable object? Ohio State fans are hoping that's when the Minnesota ground game gets bogged down. Minnesota boasts the game's No. 1 rushing offense at just shy of 300 yards per game. OSU's run defense is tops nationally at just over 62 yards allowed per contest.

Laurence Maroney, UM's lead tailback, is among the best ball carriers in college football. And his backup, Gary Russell, is not a slouch, either. The OSU front seven will need to be on top of its game and bring it every play as Minnesota figures to run the ball about 70 percent of the time.

OSU's hopes lie largely with the stout defensive tackles, Marcus Green and Quinn Pitcock, and incredible outside linebackers, Bobby Carpenter and A.J. Hawk. If the four of them answer the bell and play great assignment football, this could be an M&M'er.

Penn State held Minnesota to a season-low 114 yards rushing in a 44-14 win at State College. But this game is being played in the Metrodome, where UM's ground average swells to 350 yards per game. Egads.

6. Can the Buckeyes get pressure on Minnesota QB Bryan Cupito? -- Cupito has not played since the Oct. 8 upset at Michigan. He left that game with a pair of sore shoulders.

He was sorely missed two weeks ago as backup Tony Mortensen started in the 38-34 home loss to Wisconsin. Now Cupito has been cleared to play. He is more of a caretaker of the UM offense. But the Gophers use the run to set up the pass and he excels in play action and bootleg rollouts. OSU must bring pressure to Cupito, who has made roughly 18 college starts.

The Buckeyes figure to dial the pass rush back up again. They registered 12 sacks against MSU and had just three last week against IU. Of course, they don't want to get caught blitzing when Maroney runs the draw because he will make them pay dearly once he can get into the secondary.

7. Can OSU stem the enthusiasm of all of the Ohio guys on the Minnesota team? --It seems like half the Minnesota team comes from Ohio. And all but one of those guys – freshman LB Alex Daniels – was never seriously given a chance to play for the Buckeyes.

The same applies to coach Glen Mason, a former OSU player who went deep into the interview process in January 2001 before Tressel was awarded the job. Mason dinged OSU in 2000, hastening John Cooper's departure. But he is 0-2 against Tressel and you know he is living for the day he can notch that win. Plus, it would help his cause in negotiations with UM – his contract expires in 2006 – if he's able to point to wins over Michigan and OSU in the same year.

We know that once the game starts all of these subplots kind of take a back seat. But you know Mason and the eight or 10 key UM players from Ohio will be giving everything they have to try and pull this one out.

8. Will Josh Huston come through if the game is on the line? -- Huston is a sparking 12 of 15 on field goals for the year. But we have not seen him in a pressure-filled last-minute situation yet. That opportunity could come in this game.

Dan Stultz had to kick a pair of fourth-quarter field goals in OSU's 20-17 win at the Metrodome in 1999. Four years ago, OSU pulled out a 31-28 win over the Gophers on their home field.

9. Can the Buckeyes win an important game against a quality opponent on the road? -- Yes, OSU got some of its road kinks worked out last week at Indiana, winning 41-10 in a laugher. But the Buckeyes are 1-4 on the road against ranked teams under Tressel. The lone win was the 2001 upset of Michigan in the coach's first year.

Technically, that stat doesn't apply here because Minnesota is unranked in the AP poll, although the Gophers are ranked 22nd nationally in the USA Today coaches poll. This is a quality team, and OSU needs to play, perhaps, its best game yet to pull out the win.

We could give you some more stats – like the fact OSU is 12-8 on the road under Tressel, including 11-7 in conference road starts – but why depress you even more (just kidding).

10. Is Ohio State truly a Big Ten championship caliber team? -- The standings say Ohio State is in the thick of the conference chase. The Buckeyes are among four one-loss teams in Big Ten play, along with Penn State, Wisconsin and Northwestern.

Those ranks will be thinned in the weeks ahead as Penn State hosts Wisconsin and Northwestern visits Ohio State. Naturally, it is imperative that OSU stay on the lead lap and win every game it can.

Ohio State was a preseason national top-five team and considered, along with Michigan, as the co-favorites by many for the Big Ten championship. A loss at Minnesota would end OSU's faint hopes for a Bowl Championship Series bid and also dim OSU's Big Ten championship aspirations.

For a program that aspires to win the Big Ten every year, OSU's record in this regard in recent years has been spotty. The Buckeyes have won exactly one conference championship in the past six years. And, moreover, after so much was expected in the preseason, a loss at Minnesota would make 2005 seem a whole heck of a lot like 2004. And nobody wants any part of that.

A win keeps the hope going into the two-game homestand with Illinois and Northwestern and, more than likely, puts OSU in a position to play for at least a piece of the conference title at Michigan on Nov. 19. Now that would be more like it.

Hey, enjoy the game and we'll see you on the other side.

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