No. 12 Ohio State kept its Big Ten championship aspirations alive for another week or so with a strong second half to turn back host Minnesota 45-31 before 54,825 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
It was billed as a titanic battle between Minnesota's top-ranked rushing offense against OSU's top-ranked rushing defense. And the Gophers (5-3, 2-3) found success offensively with 578 yards of total offense – the second-highest total allowed in OSU history.
But the Buckeyes (6-2, 4-1) surged ahead 45-24 early in the fourth quarter to seize control of an entertaining and hard fought game. OSU seemed to put some of its recent problems on the road – the Buckeyes had won just two of their last seven conference road games – to bed.
"We're awfully proud of our kids," said OSU coach Jim Tressel. "Playing on the road, there are always two things that are most important. You better be superior in the special teams. We were, we made the big play. And you also have to win the turnover margin, and today we didn't turn it over."
OSU tailback Antonio Pittman got a career-high 186 yards on 23 carries with his first two touchdowns of the season. Pittman's touchdown drought ended with a 67-yard burst up the middle that gave the Buckeyes a lead they would never relinquish.
"We felt going into the Big Ten season that we could evolve into having a 100-yard back every game," Tressel said. "Antonio's long run in the third quarter was uplifting. Our receivers had great blocks downfield."
Quarterback Troy Smith completed 14 of 20 passes for 233 yards and three touchdowns. Smith played most of the game with a gash under his chin suffered on a first-half run. It required stitches to close and he was not available to the media after the game.
"He hit 70 percent of his passes – I'd like him to hit 75," Tressel joked. "But his command is coming along day by day."
Two of those touchdown passes went to Santonio Holmes, who had four catches for 94 yards. Anthony Gonzalez added four catches for 63 yards, while Ted Ginn Jr. had a 100-yard kick return for a touchdown.
For the second week in a row, OSU had balance offensively. The Buckeyes tallied 449 yards with 233 passing and 216 rushing. The rushing total eclipsed Minnesota's rushing tally of 188. (The Gophers were averaging a nation's best 299.1 yards rushing per game coming in.)
"This is the offense that has been there all along," Holmes said. "But the mistakes we made and not taking care of the ball is what's hurt us in the previous games."
Minnesota's Laurence Maroney had 127 yards on 25 carries with a touchdown. But he only got 13 of those yards on nine carries in the second half. Plus, he had a costly fourth-quarter fumble that allowed OSU to put the game away. Maroney was averaging 161.9 yards per game coming in.
"He is a great back and he was going against a great defense," Tressel said. "It's a four-quarter game and our kids just kept playing."
UM quarterback Bryan Cupito completed 26 of 35 passes for 396 yards and a touchdown.
"It was disappointing to lose today, but we know we can play with those guys," Cupito said. "They might have all the great players and talent but today we proved we can play with those guys."
Ohio State had the ball to open the game and moved 80 yards in a quick seven plays. Smith hit Gonzalez for an 11-yard gain to convert a third down. Smith then hit Holmes for a 9-yard gain and a first down at the OSU 47. Pittman then got 12 yards on a toss sweep.
Finally, on first down from the UM 41, Smith hit Holmes on an out pass in the left flat. He caught the ball in front of UM's Jamal Harris, who slipped, and turned down the sideline for the 41-yard touchdown that put the Buckeyes up 7-0 with 12:42 left in the first quarter.
"That was a great route that the coaches called," Holmes said. "We made the best out of it. It was a simple post corner route. I came back to the outside and I guess he slipped. I just walked into the end zone from there."
Minnesota then drove down but Jason Giannini's 32-yard field goal was wide right.
OSU answered with a 66-yard scoring march, keyed by Smith's 35-yard pass down the middle to Ginn. But when Smith's third-down pass to Holmes was incomplete at the UM 14, the Buckeyes settled for Josh Huston's 31-yard field goal and a 10-0 lead with 7:09 left in the first quarter.
Minnesota came to life on its next possession, moving 80 yards in a quick six plays. Maroney ripped off a 53-yard run down to the OSU 13. OSU's Malcolm Jenkins made the touchdown saving tackle. But Gary Russell netted 12 yards on three straight plays. On second-and-goal from the 1, Maroney plowed in for the touchdown, cutting the lead to 10-7 with 5:16 left in the first quarter.
But OSU answered as Ginn returned the ensuing kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. He took the ball near the left sideline and faked a reverse handoff to Gonzalez. He then cut right through the UM coverage team and was gone on his second kick return touchdown of the season, giving OSU a 17-7 bulge with 5:03 left in the first quarter.
"All week we were working on Return Phony, which is what we call it," Ginn said. "I just had to hit it and go."
Minnesota then marched down to the OSU 14, but had to settle for Giannini's 30-yard field goal. That trimmed the gap to 17-10 with nine seconds left in the first quarter.
The Gophers drew even early in the second quarter, moving 58 yards in five plays. The key play was Cupito's 42-yard bomb down the right sideline to Logan Payne. He hauled the ball in over OSU's Ashton Youboty at the OSU 5. On first down there, Cupito threw a perfect timing pass to Jared Ellerson – again over Youboty – for the 5-yard TD that tied the game at 17-17 with 11:57 left in the first half.
"Ashton is a competitive guy," Tressel said. "We leave him alone over there a lot. We put a lot of heat on him. We like to put an extra guy in the box and load up the other side. They made some plays on him today. But, fortunately, he also made some plays as well."
That score stood at halftime and OSU forced a UM punt on the first series of the second half. On second-and-5 from the OSU 33, Pittman took a handoff up the middle and followed pulling guard Rob Sims. Pittman then broke a tackle by UM John Pawlienski and was gone on a 67-yard touchdown run that gave OSU a 24-17 lead with 12:47 left in the third quarter.
Minnesota then drove down to the OSU 32. But on fourth-and-2 there, the Gophers tried a sweep right with Maroney. OSU end Mike Kudla scraped off his blocker and made a strong tackle, slamming Maroney out of bounds for no gain with 10:16 left in the third.
"They overloaded to the left side away from us," Kudla said. "We got in there and they threw that toss and as soon as they snapped it, they're already at the edge because it was to the short side. Pretty much, I just had to run and make the play. That was a good feeling to not slip off."
OSU then went 68 yards in seven plays to widen the lead. Smith's 27-yard TD pass to Gonzalez on the slant made it 31-17 with 7:46 left in the third.
"It was the exact same play I scored on against Iowa," Gonzalez said. "I guess I have experience running that play. They gave us a different look than Iowa, but it was the same result."
Minnesota got a bit of big play magic, itself, though as Cupito hit Jakari Wallace for a 32-yard gain and Ellerson for 44 more down to the OSU 1. On first down there, Russell plowed in for the touchdown that cut OSU's lead to 31-24 with 6:14 left in the third.
But the Buckeyes then broke it open with a pair of touchdowns on short fields early in the fourth quarter.
Ginn returned a punt 18 yards to the Minnesota 37. The Buckeyes needed six plays to put the ball in the end zone. The key play was Smith's 14-yard pass to Gonzalez. On second-and-3 at the UM 4, Pittman went into the end zone over right tackle. That put OSU up 38-24 with 13:20 left in the game.
The OSU defense then got to Maroney as safety Nate Salley stripped him and defensive tackle Quinn Pitcock recovered the fumble at the UM 28 with 12:09 left in the game.
"That was huge because he doesn't fumble," Tressel said. "To knock it loose from Maroney is something."
After two plays netted a loss of 2 yards, Smith pumped once, rolled out to his left stayed and found a wide open Holmes, who drifted behind the secondary and completed the 30-yard TD that put the game away at 45-24 with 10:39 left.
"From the beginning, I thought he was going to throw it to Gonzo," said Holmes, who sidestepped a Pawielski tackle attempt at the 1-yard line. "I came across running my slant route. I guess he pump faked to the defense and everybody just stopped and broke down. Nobody made a move. I just kept drifting toward the end zone and he found me."
Russell capped the scoring with a 1-yard TD plunge with 53 seconds left.
* Ohio State now leads the all-time series 38-7, including 19-4 in Minneapolis. This game ended a two-year hiatus in the series. The Buckeyes have won 19 of the last 20 games in the series. The one loss was a 29-17 Minnesota win in 2000 in Columbus. The Buckeyes have won 10 straight in Minneapolis, dating to a 35-31 loss in 1981.
* Ohio State is now 13-8 in road games in five years under Jim Tressel. That includes a mark of 12-7 in conference road games.
* Tressel is now 3-0 against Minnesota, while UM coach Glen Mason fell to 1-6 against his alma mater.
* OSU played without starting tight end Ryan Hamby and backup tailback Brandon Schnittker.
"Schnittker, we don't think will be back in the regular season," Tressel said without divulging details of the injuries. "We're hoping he is back by the bowl game. Hamby is a week-by-week thing."
Marcel Frost made his first career start in place of Hamby and had one catch for 6 yards.
* Minnesota's 578 yards of total offense trail only the 659 yards of offense OSU surrendered in a 49-42 win over Illinois in 1980. UM's total eclipsed the previous No. 2 total of 572 established by Penn State in OSU's 63-14 loss to the Nittany Lions in 1994.
Tressel was asked if he was bothered by such a large yardage total -- a total that was padded by UM's 80-yard touchdown drive in the game's waning moments.
"It would have if we had lost," Tressel said. "Hey, they're good."
* Pittman hit the 100-yard mark for the fifth time in eight games this year and sixth time in his career.
Through five Big Ten games, Pittman now has 649 yards on 110 carries – an average of 129.8 yards per game. For the season, he now has 882 yards.
* Holmes' touchdowns were his sixth and seventh of the season and he now has 21 in his career. David Boston tops that list with 34, while Cris Carter had 27.
* Ginn's kick return for a touchdown was the first of his career. He had a 98-yard touchdown return at Indiana last week downgraded to a 73-yarder because of a penalty.
After scoring eight touchdowns last year as a freshman, he now has four as a sophomore – two catches, one punt return and the kick return. Nine of his 12 career touchdowns have gone for 57 yards or longer.
Ginn's kick return score was OSU's first since Michael Wiley had a 100-yarder against Bowling Green in 1997.
* Smith matched his career high with three touchdown passes. He originally did that against Michigan State two weeks ago.
He now has 10 TD passes on the year and 18 in his career.
* OSU's 45 points are the most the Buckeyes have scored since a 50-7 win over San Jose State in 2002.
* Defensively, Donte Whitner led OSU with 10 tackles with linebacker A.J. Hawk and Youboty each tallying nine. Youboty also had three pass break-ups.
* The win makes OSU bowl eligible for the sixth straight year.
* OSU returns home to for a two-game homestand with Illinois and Northwestern before ending the regular season at Michigan Nov. 19.
Illinois fell to 2-6 overall and 0-5 in conference play with a 41-24 loss to Wisconsin Saturday. That game next Saturday will start at 3:30 p.m. and will be televised nationally by ESPN.