In addition to coaching defensive backs for Minnesota, assistant coach Jay Sawvel is in charge of special teams, which is why he has watched videotapes of Ohio State punts. Well, he has watched a few.

In addition to coaching defensive backs for Minnesota, assistant coach Jay Sawvel is in charge of special teams, which is why he has watched videotapes of Ohio State punts.

Well, he has watched a few.

"It's scary when you play a team," Sawvel said, "and you go to break down the film on their punt teams, and there are hardly any punts. I was sort of sitting there going, 'Where's the rest of this video?' But that's all they've punted. That's a little bit of a problem."

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Sawvel, a native of Barnesville, Ohio, who played at Mount Union in northeastern Ohio, knows well the trouble that Ohio State's offense will pose for Minnesota's defense on Saturday. "This is a big-time challenge," he said.

Statistics suggest that the Gophers (7-2) are solid but not smothering on defense. The unit ranks in the Big Ten's middle pack in total, scoring, rushing and passing defense. The Gophers lack a star beyond senior linebacker Damien Wilson, who ranks second in the league with an average of 9.8 tackles a game.

Minnesota, however, has been opportunistic enough on defense for the team to be tied atop the Big Ten West with Nebraska and Wisconsin at 4-1. The Gophers are second in the league with a plus-8 turnover margin. They have intercepted 12 passes and recovered 10 fumbles.

"We're pretty aggressive," said safety Antonio Johnson, a junior from Cleveland. "We don't wait back and see what the offense does. We try to make them make a move. We try to be aggressive and cause mistakes by the offense."

Johnson is a part of a man-coverage secondary that has been rebuilt with bigger, more athletic players than the ones Jerry Kill inherited when he took over as Minnesota's coach in 2011.

"They have the best secondary they've had probably in my broadcast career," said Darrell Thompson, the Gophers' career rushing leader who has been the team's radio analyst since 1998. "They're good tacklers, they're long, they can run and they can make plays. That, to me, is the strength of the defense."

Minnesota's 12 interceptions rank second in the Big Ten behind Ohio State's 14. Eight Gophers have intercepted a pass this season.

"You get the knock that, 'Well, it's Minnesota, and they may not be as athletic,'" Sawvel said. "But in the secondary, we're as athletic as pretty much anybody we play against. We've got some very good athletes."

The Gophers' athleticism showed at No. 5 TCU on Sept. 13. Minnesota's 30-7 loss had more to do with its five turnovers than defensive lapses.

TCU has averaged 50.1 points against eight other opponents. The Horned Frogs' 427 total yards against Minnesota were 139 fewer than they have averaged in their other games.

"There really wasn't any time in the secondary," Sawvel said, "where we felt like, 'Oh, man, we're overwhelmed against TCU.' They're scoring 50 and 60 points on a lot of people. Look, Ohio State is extremely good. We might get overwhelmed by this. But I think we're pretty athletic, and we've got some length and size.

"Where the length and the size have helped us is in a lot of the perimeter game with the screens and short throws and things of that nature. We're able to get off blocks fairly well. We've tackled well pretty much all year in the secondary. We've been able to keep run-after-catches to a minimum, and that's going to be a critical thing with Ohio State because if you screw up something against them, 5 yards turns into 50."

tjones@dispatch.com

@Todd_Jones