Defensive Notebook: OSU Wary Of Gophers

Members of the Ohio State defense were reminded this week how Minnesota was able to roll up 576 yards total offense in last year's game at the Metrodome. The Buckeyes won that game 45-31 and, although Minnesota comes into Saturday's game 3-5, OSU is on edge. Linebacker James Laurinaitis, a Minnesota native, shares his thoughts on the Gophers and looks back on his college choice.

On one hand, you look at Minnesota's lackluster 3-5 record and say, "There's no way the Golden Gophers can challenge No. 1-ranked Ohio State."

But it was almost exactly one year ago when Minnesota rolled up 578 yards total offense in a 45-31 loss to the Buckeyes at the Metrodome. That yardage total stands as the second-most yards ever allowed by an Ohio State team and it serves as a reminder that the Buckeyes – even at a perfect 8-0 on the season – must stay on top of their game as Minnesota visits Saturday (3:30 p.m., ABC).

"We look back and see it was the second-most passing yards in OSU history and the second-most total yards allowed as well in 116 years of Ohio State football," said OSU linebacker James Laurinaitis, who happens to be a Minnesota native. "There is a reminder of that in our lockers. You have to focus on everything with them. You better be ready to go. It's going to be a fun game and we have to come out with our best game."

It has been a rough year for Minnesota as the Gophers are 0-4 in Big Ten play. Offensively, Minnesota lost top tailback Laurence Maroney a year early to the NFL and his key backup, Gary Russell, left school after last season due to academic concerns.

The running game has been Minnesota's calling card in recent years, but the Gophers come into this game a distant seventh in the Big Ten in rushing offense (161.0 yards per game) and eighth in total offense (359.5 ypg).

Quarterback Bryan Cupito threw for 396 yards and one touchdown in last year's game against OSU. But the Gophers are only averaging about half that many yards (198.5) threw the air per game this year.

Speaking earlier this week, OSU coach Jim Tressel sized up the Minnesota offense.

"They always play everyone physical," Tressel said. "I don't think in the last 10 years anyone has run the football better than they have over the course of time and they're throwing it a little bit more than they have in the past few years.

"They have the outstanding quarterback, Cupito. He is fourth in passing efficiency in the Big Ten. He's in the top two or three career-wise in Golden Gopher history. He's an Ohio guy that's just very disciplined. He just does a great job with the football. He knows their offense inside and out. He knows what they want to be in and has been throwing to a great group of receivers. I think they're probably a little more balanced than they've been, but they're never going to stop being the physical run team, which is really their signature."

In addition to losing Maroney and Russell, Minnesota lost a couple of decorated offensive linemen as well. Amir Pinnix (747 yards, six touchdowns) and Columbus native Alex Daniels (309 yards, five TDs) have filled in at tailback.

"As you watch Minnesota, they're pressing on," Tressel said. "That's college football -- guys graduate, guys leave early. Sometimes when you go from lots of experience at quarterback to next to none, you see a more dramatic change, unless a guy really evolves quickly, but those two or three linemen that they lost and the back that they lost, those are significant.

"But Pinnix looks good to me. There's only one ball and you give it to one back, and they've been giving it to him and he's been doing a good job, but you might have to ask them which they think they're missing the most, but they're still doing those things that give you problems. They make you put a lot of people in the box to stop them and they do a great job with play action, which we knew firsthand last year and everyone else has known every time they've played them. So they're still who they are."

The Gophers will also be without standout tight end Matt Spaeth, who is injured. But Cupito has several talented receiving threats, including Logan Payne (35 catches, 468 yards, seven TDs) and Ernie Wheelwright (17 catches, 175 yards).

Cornerback Antonio Smith may be a first-year starter for the Buckeyes as a senior. But Smith has studied what Cupito and the Gophers were able to do a year ago.

"I give credit to them," Smith said. "They had a wonderful day and Cupito did real well in delivering the ball and putting it where it needed to be. A lot of people said that was Ashton Youboty's worst game. But he was right there. He just wasn't able to make the play. Sometimes, that happens for a corner. You're in the right spot and you're in good position, but the offense has good guys, too.

"They play and practice just like we do and sometimes that happens. They come up with the big plays and we don't. We know they will try and throw the ball and do what they did last year. We know we have to do better than we did last year."

OSU gave up a 54-yard catch-and-run play by Northern Illinois in the season opener. But no team has lined up and completed a deep ball against the rebuilt OSU defense.

"I would give credit to the defensive line and the linebackers for putting pressure on the quarterback and getting them rattled and making them scramble," Smith said. "I don't know why teams haven't thrown deep that much on us. We have been doing a good job of swarming to the ball and that helps you create turnovers and eliminate big plays."

Smith discussed what the defense – coming off a stellar performance in last week's 44-3 win over Indiana – will be out to do this week.

"As a defensive back, we want to be able to stop the pass," Smith said. "That's our first goal. We also want to create turnovers and stop the rush. We just want to have a good game overall. If all 11 guys do their job on every play, we should be successful.

"We definitely have to prepare for them when they come into the ‘Shoe this week. We definitely have to play better."

The Buckeyes do not want to get lulled into a false sense of security. Minnesota struggled mightily in last week's 10-9 win over Division I-AA North Dakota State. The Gophers managed just 249 yards total offense and needed to block a late field goal to preserve that win.

"You watch the film and you see that North Dakota State is a good team, too," Laurinaitis said. "Minnesota has been close in a lot of games. They just haven't found that one game yet. We have to stay focused this week and try to shut them down.

"They do the same things they always have. They have a good running back. He can play. They have a different O-line. Cupito had a career game against us last year. He's a good player and we have to play well against them.

"They are a little more balanced the run and pass maybe than they were last year. But they still do the same things with the running game. They have the same zone concepts and tosses, things like that. We know from last year, we have to expect both. We have to shut down the run. That's where it starts."

Laurinaitis talked about what makes Cupito, a product of Cincinnati McNicholas, an effective quarterback.

"He's patient," Laurinaitis said. "He doesn't force many things. He has great touch. You could see that last year, when he threw it in that little zone between the corner and the safety. He also has great touch on the deep ones. If he gets comfortable back there and gets confident, the more he's going to sling the ball around.

"We have to affect Cupito. He had a career game against us last year. He's an Ohio kid coming back home."

Laurinaitis is also amazed that opponents have not tried to go deep on the Buckeyes.

"I think a lot of teams don't have time to get those deep dropbacks with our D-line and the way they pressure," he said. "I think that helps our secondary out quite a bit. I think a lot of teams will try and challenge us deep because we're still young. They tried us last year when we had some older guys."

Laurinaitis was also a backup player a year ago when the Buckeyes went to play in his hometown. But he also recalls what he saw with that game.

"We knew they were the number one rushing team and we had the number one rush defense," he said. "That was the headline coming in and then they came out and threw for 396 yards. It throws you off guard. You have to expect the unexpected. They can do a lot of things. They like to throw the deep ball. They may try and test us.

"I think they got us on the ground and cut us a lot. We always say, ‘You can't make tackles when you're on the ground.' We had a lot of guys getting cut. We didn't talk about the pass too much.

"We have full confidence in our corners and in our defense. Everyone we have back there, we have a lot of guys that can make plays. They're in there studying film and they're ready to go. They know they have a lot of good receivers coming in that we have to try and stop."

A True Homecoming

Smith noted how Minnesota has 17 Ohio players on its roster.

"I know Minnesota does a lot of recruiting in this area," Smith said. "It's a good thing to see a lot of local guys go up there and compete in the Big Ten. It all starts right here in Columbus.

"A lot of guys are from Ohio. They're going to come here on Saturday ready to play. They are going to show what they have to offer. We have to get ready to play them on Saturday."

Several of those Gophers are from Columbus. Smith, a Beechcroft grad, recalls facing and hearing about several of these players from the City League.

"I remember playing against Ernie Wheelwright and Walnut Ridge in a playoff game and I remember hearing about D.J. (Dominic Jones) when he was at Brookhaven," he said. "They have some great talent from Columbus and Ohio.

"One thing with Wheelwright that stands out is his size. He is about 6-5. He has good hands, he can catch the ball and he can run with it. We just have to prepare for that this week."

Laurinaitis said the Buckeyes know Minnesota's Ohio-bred contingent will be looking to play its best game.

"Coach Tressel mentioned that don't think those 17 guys from Ohio won't come in and play their best game," he said. "With me being from Minnesota, you want to play a great game against them."

Laurinaitis said his high school teammate and best friend, Dominique Barber, will also be on the other side.

"I talk to my best friend, Dominique Barber, who plays safety for them," he said. "I talk to him a little bit and ask him who they play and wish him good luck. There are a lot of guys there who I played against in high school."

Laurinaitis' Choice

Two years ago, Laurinaitis was a senior at Hamel (Minn.) Wayzata High School.

"I grew up watching the Gophers," he said. "I watched them a lot on high school because my best friend's older brother, Marion Barber, played for them. I would go to the games with Dom. But when it came time to make a decision, you have to clear all of that stuff out of your head and make the best decision."

There were reports that Laurinaitis, voted his state's defensive Mr. Football award winner, had initially verbaled to Minnesota. But that all changed after he was offered by Ohio State and made an official visit to Columbus.

"When I came here, I just knew," he said. "I had a tremendous opportunity to learn behind three great guys. Ohio State came in more my senior year. Minnesota had offered me right off the bat, after my junior year. Ohio State came in my senior year.

"After I came out to Ohio State and made my visit, it was a no-brainer. That's when I made my commitment."

Laurinaitis said he never took much grief for selecting Ohio State.

"I don't think there were any hard feelings," he said. "I have quite a few buddies who play for Minnesota. They were upset I wasn't coming there, but there was no grief. There were a lot of people saying, ‘Congratulations and good luck and we're happy for you.' "

The rest has been history as Laurinaitis has tallied a team-high 64 tackles to go with seven tackles-for-loss, four interceptions and three sacks. He was named a week ago as one of 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award as the nation's top linebacker.

"I don't have an opinion on the whole Butkus thing," he said. "That's just something that happens. I am honored to be on that list. I am surprised a little bit. There are some great players on that list. I think about A.J. (Hawk) being on that list last year. It comes as a shock because I am nowhere near the player he is.

"It's been quick, but I have a long way to go before I'll be happy with the way I play. I am a perfectionist. I got that from my mom."

Defensive end Jay Richardson, who had a pair of sacks last week against IU, shared his two cents on Laurinaitis.

"James is a monster," Richardson said. "I like James because he doesn't think too much. He just plays. He's really instinctive. If there's a hole, he's taking it. He's a good young leader. It doesn't matter if you're a senior or a freshman. He'll go out there and tell you something that will get you fired up. He's going to be a great player for us."

Laurinaitis' rise follows the rise of this OSU defense, which leads the nation in scoring (8.2 points per game) despite only having two returning starters.

"We're just getting more confident in what we're doing," he said. "We don't feel like we have arrived. That's just the humility part. We try to remain humble throughout the year. I think we do a great job of that. A lot of us still look at those guys that played last year and we say we have a ways to go until we're there. We look at little things to improve on every week and try to do that."

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