Game Preview: Minnesota

No. 14 Ohio State continues its 2008 football season Saturday by beginning Big Ten play with Minnesota in Ohio Stadium. previews the game with notes on Minnesota's renaissance, key players to watch and a breakdown of the Golden Gophers' offensive and defensive units.

Minnesota (4-0, 0-0)
Saturday, Sept. 27, Noon
Ohio Stadium (102,329)
TV: Big Ten Network
2007 Record: 1-11, 0-8 Big Ten Conference
Head Coach: Tim Brewster, 5-11 at Minnesota (second season)

Not many college football teams get to quadruple their win total from one season to the next. Even fewer get to do it just one-third of the way through the season.

Those facts show just how poorly the 2007 season went for the Golden Gophers – and just how well they have responded this year.

Head coach Tim Brewster stepped into an impossible situation last season, taking over Glen Mason after an epic bowl collapse pushed the Ohio State grad out the door just a year after signing a long-term contract extension. Brewster inherited a defense almost completely devoid of talent and experience and an offense that was much more suited to running Mason's physical running attack than the spread he chose to implement.

Minnesota was going to take some lumps, but not many could have predicted just how bad it would be. The Golden Gophers went 1-11 and were kept winless in Big Ten play. The nonconference slate included losses to Division I-AA foe North Dakota State, Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic, and the lone win was a triple overtime affair against Miami (Ohio).

"I think mentally it may be one of the toughest things I've ever been through," star wideout Eric Decker said. "It definitely tested my own character and the character of the team."

It's safe to say that the Golden Gophers pressed on. There was plenty of build off of, considering that six of Minnesota's 11 losses last year were by seven points or less, and the Golden Gophers have been a completely different team in 2008.

They started looking like the same old squad, going into the final minute in the home opener against project MAC cellar dweller Northern Illinois trailing. Instead, the Gophers put a touchdown on the board late to win the game, then came back to post a big win over a Bowling Green team coming off of a win over ranked Pittsburgh.

After a less than dominating win over Montana State that some called a "wake-up call," Minnesota made up for last year's loss at Florida Atlantic by easily dispatching the Owls at home.

"I couldn't be more pleased about where we are at as a football team right now, finishing our first four games," Brewster said.

The offense, led by second-year signal caller Adam Weber, has been solid even despite an injury bug that has hit both the running back group and the offensive line. The defense has been much better than a year ago when it was in the bottom six in the nation in total, rushing and pass defense.

And after Weber said before the season that the team's inability to stay away from stupid mistakes cost them dearly last year, Minnesota has played largely-mistake free football. They are plus-11 in turnover margin through four games and have scored on all but one of 16 trips to the red zone. Fourteen of those 15 scores have been touchdowns.

"They have a lot more confidence about them during this 4-0 streak," Ohio State safety Kurt Coleman said. "They're an efficient team, so we've got to be able to disrupt what they're going to do and get turnovers."

The Golden Gophers enter the game eager to test themselves against the conference's preseason favorites while attempting to see just how far they've come since the nightmare that was 2007.

"It's a tremendous challenge for our football team," Brewster said. "I'm not going to spend a lot of time talking about Ohio State. They're a great football team, an extremely well-coached football team. They are who we thought they were (coming into the season). They are a great football team from top to bottom.

"I think it'll certainly be a barometer for our football team to see where we are. I think they're as good a team as there is in the Big Ten. It's a tremendous challenge for our football team with the youth that we have to take our football team on the road into a hostile environment like that will give us a chance to see what we've got. It's a very exciting challenge for us."

Series Top Performers
In his career, Chris Wells has rushed the ball 39 times against Minnesota for 206 yards and three touchdowns, while Maurice Wells has 24 carries for 68 yards. In the receiving game, Brian Hartline has a team-high seven receptions against the Golden Gophers for 105 yards and two touchdowns. Brian Robiskie has six grabs – two touchdowns – for 117 yards. Punter A.J. Trapasso has averaged 37.1 yards on his 10 punts, but he did not have a kick against Minnesota in 2006 and ran for a first down on a fake punt last season.

Defensively, Minnesota native James Laurinaitis has 27 career tackles against his home state's flagship school, including a sack. Marcus Freeman has 17 stops, while Malcolm Jenkins has made 13 tackles and two interceptions in three years against the U. Jamario O'Neal also has an interception.

Golden Gopher Players To Know
QB Adam Weber: The Shoreview, Minn., native has been exactly what Brewster wanted during his sophomore campaign. A captain already, Weber has completed 79 of 110 passes (71.8 percent for a Big Ten-leading 967 yards. And after throwing 19 interceptions last year, he has thrown just one this year while reaching paydirt seven times, numbers that help place him second in the conference in passing efficiency.

In addition, Weber possesses the one attribute that coaches love in a quarterback: toughness. Even while leading the team in rushing last year and compiling 37 carries so far this year, Weber has not missed a snap in the last two seasons. He's not afraid to lower his head and get the yardage he needs when it comes down to it, and he can take a hit as well even as the team tries to limit the number of shots opponents get in.

"He's a strong kid," Brewster said. "Physically, he's one tough hombre. He is a tough Minnesota kid."

WR Eric Decker: What more is there to say about Decker than the stats spell out? He's leading the league with 32 catches and 454 yards and also has four touchdowns to tie for tops in the conference. Decker also has run the ball seven times for 71 yards and a touchdown.

The consensus on Decker is that he's not the fastest receiver in the world, but the Milwaukee Brewers draft pick is a fantastic athlete nonetheless. He's quick, can play anywhere on the field, is an efficient route-runner and doesn't shy away from contact when he has the ball.

"He makes a lot of big plays," Coleman said. What more could you ask for out of a wide receiver?"

DE Willie VanDeSteeg: The Silver Lake, Minn., native has had a star-crossed career as a Golden Gopher. He made 10 sacks in 2006 and looked like a star in the making. Then last year, he made just one sack among his 29 tackles. What happened? 2007 was an injury-plagued campaign, as he suffered a broken bone in his wrist before the season started. While trying to compensate for that, he suffered shoulder injuries that really left him ineffective.

Now healthy, VanDeSteeg is back to his 2006 form. He's made 17 tackles, six have which have been behind the line of scrimmage and 1.5 of which have been sacks. He's also forced and recovered a fumble.

"First of all, he's healthy," Brewster said. "He's explosive coming off the ball. I see him come off the ball and rush the passer, and he does a great job with his hands."

VanDeSteeg is not just a threat to sack the quarterback: he has 31.5 career tackles for loss, just 12.5 of which are sacks.

LB/S Simoni Lawrence: Originally a Penn State commit out of high school, Lawrence instead went the junior college route before becoming one of the players brought in to boost last season's porous defense.

Lawrence has done just that since becoming a major player during the Bowling Green game as the fourth linebacker on the field charged with stopping the Falcons' spread offense. He added an interception return for a touchdown against Florida Atlantic, pushing his season totals to 18 tackles, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and the interception.

Game Breakdown When Ohio State has the ball: To say that improvement has been made in the Minnesota defense would be an understatement. Minnesota might have had the worst defense in the country last year, a possibility understated by the fact that they were last in the nation in scoring defense.

This year, things are looking up. Minnesota sits 35th in the nation in scoring defense, 38th in passing efficiency defense, 42nd in rush defense and 65th in total defense. The Golden Gophers are just 94th in passing yards against, but the interceptions have helped cover up that weakness.

"Defensively they've brought in a system within their second year as a staff when (former Duke head) Coach (Ted) Roof came in that applies a little bit more pressure, I think has done a great job in being sound," Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel said. "They've faced a lot of different kinds of offenses. Northern Illinois was one whole different style and then they go to Bowling Green and it was all four wides, five wides and they handled that. Then Montana State was back at home and they were kind of a combination of both Northern Illinois and Minnesota. They had a little bit of both. And then Florida Atlantic, which was a team that beat them a year ago, they thrashed pretty good 37-3 this past Saturday evening, and they really stymied Florida Atlantic's offense, which a year ago scored a bunch of points on them."

In other words, the Golden Gophers should be able to handle, schematically, whatever the Buckeyes throw at them. Whether they have the talent to stop it remains a question.

While Minnesota has brought in some excellent new talent in players like Simoni Lawrence, true freshman nose tackle Jewhan Edwards, starting cornerback Traye Simmons and leading tackler Tramaine Brock, there remains a question as to just how good the defense is given the competition. In addition, Minnesota must prove it can stop a team should it be able to hold onto the ball.

As a result, ball security has to be the No. 1 focus for Ohio State. Minnesota has intercepted eight opposing passes and recovered five fumbles, both of which are conference highs. The Golden Gophers are equal opportunity thieves. An onus must be put on freshman quarterback Terrelle Pryor, who must not make any ill-advised throws during his first Big Ten game.

Should the Buckeyes hold on to the ball, one might expect them to be able to move it. No team Minnesota has played has excelled in the running game, and Chris Wells' return could signal more dominance on the ground for an Ohio State team that still has rushed it well during Beanie's absence.

When Minnesota has the ball: Everything starts with Weber, who took his lumps – literally and metaphorically – a season ago as a true freshman while the Golden Gophers struggled to their dismal campaign. Weber showed promise, though, and this year he's cashed in on that promise with his excellent season.

Decision-making has improved in multiple ways through experience. Weber is more likely during his sophomore campaign to keep his eyes downfield and throw the ball, and Minnesota has put in more quick passes into the spread coast offense to keep him from taking unnecessary hits.

"I think as we were talking about what makes a quarterback good is when you slow the game down and you know exactly what's going on and you make decisions accordingly," Tressel said. "He's taking every snap and he's got some good guys with him."

The Golden Gophers rank 24th in scoring offense in the country at 36.3 points per game. However, the team is not in the top 40 in the country in rushing, passing or total yardage, which hints at the fact that Minnesota has used turnovers and short fields to help pad the scoring average. Keeping the Golden Gophers in long fields would help the Buckeye defense immensely.

Minnesota uses a spread offense, but the run plays and pass plays are mostly distributed evenly; the Golden Gophers have 155 rushes and 110 passes on the year, but it's fair to say many of Weber's 37 carries may have began as pass plays or even run-pass options. With more than 25 attempts passing through the air on average, Minnesota is not bashful when it comes to throwing the ball.

When it comes to the running game, the Golden Gophers have dealt with the loss of Duane Bennett, who was a top performer in each of the first two games before tearing his ACL. He's still second in both rushing and receiving on the team.

In his stead, freshmen DeLeon Eskridge and Shady Salamon have performed well. Eskridge has 204 yards and five touchdowns, while Salamon is a bit more explosive at 5.5 yards per try on his 22 carries.

"They're not the tallest or the biggest guys, but they run hard and they're very quick," Coleman said. "They'll find the hole because they like to have their linemen just kind of block the zone and they'll find whatever crease they can and make whatever is best out of it."

In the passing game, Minnesota mostly relies on Decker, who has more catches than the rest of the receiving corps combined. The only other two wideouts to catch passes are Ben Kuznia (10 catches, 97 yards) and Ralph Spry (five for 38).

However, safeties coach Paul Haynes looked back at the 2005 game between the teams as a reason for the Buckeyes not to focus totally on Decker. In that game, Ohio State went in focusing on wideout Ernie Wheelwright; instead, Jared Ellerson and Logan Payne combined for nearly 200 yards through the air with a touchdown.

"If you spend too much time on him, the other guys can beat you," Haynes said. "At any given day someone else can beat you if you spend too much time on the other guy, but he is a big part of their offense."

Tight ends Jack Simmons and Nick Tow-Arnett have a touchdown apiece and 12 combined catches.

Both the running game and passing game have been impacted by a banged up offensive line that wasn't all that deep coming into the season. Starting left tackle Dom Alford and right guard Ned Tavale have suffered ankle injuries, center Jeff Tow-Arnett banged up his knee and his replacement, Trey Davis, has a hand injury. All could play. Tow-Arnett, Tavale and tackle Jason Meinke – all juniors – are the only upperclassmen in the rotation.

Weber and Decker are the stars of the show, but the rest of the Minnesota offense is based on quickness and timing. Ohio State should match up well with Minnesota in most regards, though the spread is always dangerous if it gets humming.

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