Ohio State’s running game remains stuck in mud. The defense continues to yield big plays.
Down the road, such deficiencies will haunt the Buckeyes if they aren’t fixed. They threatened to do so Saturday against 30-point underdog Minnesota.
But the one dimension that No. 3 Ohio State can rely on — its passing game — is one heck of a dimension. The Buckeyes rode that to a 30-14 victory over the Golden Gophers in front of 100,024 often-restless fans at Ohio Stadium.
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Redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins Jr. completed 33 of 44 passes for 412 yards and three touchdowns. Two went to K.J. Hill, who caught nine passes for 187 yards.
“The saying right now that I'm using is, ‘Enhance our strengths and let's fix our weaknesses,’” coach Urban Meyer said. “We're going to have to get some things fixed.”
Ohio State (7-0, 4-0 Big Ten) gained only 92 yards on the ground, averaging just 2.9 per carry. None of its 32 runs went for more than 12 yards. The offensive line, particularly right tackle Isaiah Prince, struggled with pass protection as the game wore on.
Minnesota (3-3, 0-3) entered the game ranked 21st nationally in total defense, but the youthful Gophers had also surrendered 90 points in losses to Maryland and Iowa.
“I don't think we played particularly well today,” Meyer said of the offensive line. “We gave up three sacks. We have to keep Dwayne upright. Short yardage is not a strength, red zone is not a strength, and running the ball is not a strength.”
Fortunately for the Buckeyes, the passing game is. When he had time to throw, Haskins was dead-on as usual. It helps to have the receivers he has. Terry McLaurin outfought a Minnesota defender for the ball in the end zone for a 41-yard touchdown to put Ohio State ahead 10-7 late in the first quarter.
Hill somehow twisted his body and used his right hand as if it had Velcro on it during a 36-yard score that gave the Buckeyes a 17-14 halftime lead.
After the third field goal by Blake Haubeil, subbing for the injured Sean Nuernberger, gave the Buckeyes a 23-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, Hill put the game away with a 27-yard touchdown catch with 3 1/2 minutes left.
Until then, the game was a slog. The Buckeyes shut out Minnesota in the second half after yielding two 75-yard touchdown drives in the first.
But it was far from a dominating performance. Three Minnesota drives into Ohio State territory ended with turnovers. Twice in the second half, the Gophers missed field goals. The Buckeyes struggled to get consistent pressure on freshman walk-on quarterback Zack Annexstad, who repeatedly completed passes on slant patterns.
“We're a team that challenges every throw, and when you get beat, that's a problem,” Meyer said. “So that's something that's not a strength right now.”
Mohamed Ibrahim ran 23 times for 157 yards and both Minnesota touchdowns.
“That's not acceptable,” Meyer said.
Ohio State gave up 16 plays longer than 10 yards.
Injuries have taken a toll on the Buckeyes’ defense. All-American Nick Bosa is out indefinitely, and defensive end Jonathon Cooper and linebacker Malik Harrison didn’t play after being in concussion protocol. Cornerback Damon Arnette and defensive tackle Robert Landers were injured during the game.
But the Buckeyes were supposed to have the depth to withstand injuries.
“As you go into week 8, I would say we’re running out of time in terms of being young,” defensive co-coordinator Alex Grinch said. “Is it a work in progress? I think it always is. But it’s time now for us to get our feet underneath us and perform better.”
He took some comfort in the turnovers. Cornerback Kendall Sheffield played his first-quarter interception like a wide receiver would. Shaun Wade stripped the ball for a key fumble late in the first half. Safety Isaiah Pryor got his first career interception near the goal line.
“If you polled the defensive coaches and players, there’s some level of disappointment, but also awfully excited to be 7-0,” Grinch said. “The conversation is a whole lot different if it wasn’t.”
Next up is Purdue, which has rebounded from a poor start and has the passing game to give the Buckeyes fits.
“What we're going to do is enjoy our win,” Meyer said. “Not many teams are 7-0. (Then) get some things fixed and get ready for the trip to Purdue.”