Ohio State football pulls away for opening win over Minnesota

Bill Rabinowitz
The Columbus Dispatch

MINNEAPOLIS – Ohio State's opener didn't figure to be a breeze.

No. 4 Ohio State hadn't lost a Big Ten game since 2018, but Minnesota had the experience to pose a real test against a Buckeye team breaking in quarterback C.J. Stroud and relying on inexperienced players on defense.

The Golden Gophers did just that.

But the Buckeyes survived the scare in a 45-31 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 50,805 at Huntington Bank Stadium.

"To say that I'm surprised with the way it played out, I'm not," said Day. "We played a lot of young guys, on the road, conference game, first time playing with fans in a long time, a quarterback who hadn't thrown a college pass before. But the way we rallied and played in the second half, we have a lot to build on here."

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Stroud threw four touchdown passes, all in the second half, including a 56-yarder to Garrett Wilson to put the Buckeyes ahead for good, a swing pass that true freshman TreVeyon Henderson turbo-charged into a 70-yard score, and a 61-yarder to Chris Olave that clinched the win.

"Time of possession was kind of crazy," Stroud said, explaining part of the reason he was out of rhythm until the break and pointing out that Minnesota held the ball for 18:19 of the first half to Ohio State's 11:41. 

The biggest play the Buckeyes made might have been one by a defense that had its share of struggles. Following Wilson's score, defensive tackle Haskell Garrett ran 32 yards for a touchdown after defensive end Zach Harrison stripped the ball from Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan.

"It just goes to show you big guys can run," Garrett joked. 

"I thought that was probably the difference in the game," said Day. "Anytime you get a defensive score ... that flips the scoreboard, and it's a huge game changer." 

Stroud finished with 294 passing yards on 13-of-22 passing, but his debut was not flawless. He threw an interception to set up Minnesota's second touchdown and showed his inexperience often.

The Buckeyes' defense, which started seven players making their starting debut, missed numerous tackles, mostly on Mohamed Ibrahim. The Big Ten's Running Back of the Year in 2020 gained 161 yards on 29 carries and scored two touchdowns before reportedly tearing his Achilles' tendon late in the third quarter.

The game started as well as the Buckeyes could have hoped. Ohio State's defense thwarted a Minnesota drive on the opening possession after the Gophers drove inside the Ohio State 40.

OSU wasted little time when they got the ball, scoring on a 71-yard touchdown run by redshirt freshman Miyan Williams. When Noah Ruggles added a 35-yard field goal to make it 10-0, it looked like the Buckeyes might cruise.

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But the first half turned when Gophers coach P.J. Fleck elected to go for it on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 29. After an Ohio State timeout, Ibrahim took advantage of a defensive breakdown to run 56 yards. That set up a 13-yard pass to Dylan Wright, who went over redshirt freshman cornerback Lejond Cavazos for the touchdown.

The Buckeyes were particularly young at that position. Cameron Brown was listed as unavailable, and senior Sevyn Banks didn't play.

"We had Sevyn ready, kind of in an emergency role," Day said, adding he hoped to have him healthy for next week's game against Oregon. 

It got worse against a Gophers team that has 20 returning starters. After completing some safe passes early, Stroud looked increasingly uncomfortable the rest of the first half. He was off-target on a pass over the middle to Olave, and the ball deflected off his hands for an interception.

Minnesota capitalized by going 37 yards for the go-ahead touchdown, aided by a pass interference on true freshman Denzel Burke on third down from the 5. Ibrahim scored on a 2-yard carry.

It was the first time Ohio State had trailed at halftime in a regular-season Big Ten game since 2018 against Maryland.

The teams traded touchdowns to start the third quarter. Williams ran three times for 27 yards before Stroud made a nice downfield throw to Olave, who did the rest for a 38-yard touchdown.

Ohio State then appeared to have gotten its biggest defensive play of the night when safety Josh Proctor intercepted a Morgan pass and returned it to the Minnesota 25. But linebacker Dallas Gant was called for roughing the passer, negating the turnover. Two plays later, Ibrahim broke a tackle by linebacker Tommy Eichenberg for a 19-yard touchdown to make it 21-17.

After the Wilson and Garrett touchdowns for Ohio State, Minnesota closed to within 31-24 on a field goal.

Henderson's score gave the Buckeyes a two-touchdown lead. Minnesota answered, but Ohio State countered.

Stroud rolled to his right and had an open receiver short. But he spotted Olave deeper and let loose. Olave caught it, tight-roped the sideline and scored to put the game out of reach.

Williams finished with nine carries for 125 yards. Ohio State outgained Minnesota 495-408.

The Buckeyes played without center Harry Miller, who was on the team's unavailable list. Luke Wypler replaced him.

brabinowitz@dispatch.com

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