Minnesota shows guts against Ohio State, but Mohamed Ibrahim injury looms large

Chip Scoggins
Star Tribune

The speed was different. The talent level at skill positions was different. The ability to score in a blink was different.

One team is built like a race car, the other one operates like a bulldozer.

The bulldozer inflicted some damage, but the sports car is hard to contain at full throttle.

That was the cold, hard truth about the Gophers' season-opening 45-31 loss to No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday at Huntington Bank Stadium.

"They're just really good," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "But I think we have a good football team, too, and I think everybody saw that tonight."

The Gophers can take away many positives from their performance, but the Buckeyes proved why they reside in a different weight class with their cast of fleet-footed athletes.

Ohio State posted touchdown plays of 71, 56, 70 and 61 yards. The Gophers kept clawing back after every lightning bolt, but winning a track meet is not their formula for success. Certainly not against a team as explosive offensively as what they encountered on Thursday night.

Luckily for the Gophers, no other team on their schedule can match Ohio State's talent level. The performance exposed issues on both sides that need to be addressed, but the Gophers also found some things to carry forward —with one significant caveat: The health of workhorse running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who left the game in the second half with a leg injury.

The severity of his injury looms over everything now. Ibrahim went down as he strained for extra yards, as he always does. The offense isn't the same without their bulldog tailback, so his status becomes a real concern.

It's easy to overreact to one performance, because first impressions are powerful. The Gophers provided a mixed bag to chew on.

Ohio State Buckeyes linebacker Teradja Mitchell (3) and Ohio State Buckeyes defensive end Zach Harrison (9) tackle Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim (24) during the third quarter of their game in Huntington Bank Stadium at University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, MN on September 2, 2021.

They made things interesting and entertaining after a gutsy call by Fleck brought his sideline and the sellout crowd to life.

The Gophers trailed 10-0 early in the second quarter when they faced fourth-and-1 at their 29-yard line. Fleck decided to keep his offense on the field, sending out the jumbo package of seven offensive linemen.

Ibrahim took the handoff and burst free for a 56-yard run. Everything changed at that point. If Ibrahim gets stuffed, Ohio State has prime real estate to score again, and the game is probably over.

Instead, transfer wide receiver Dylan Wright hauled in a highlight-worthy touchdown catch and the Buckeyes wobbled a bit. The Gophers led 14-10 at halftime and 21-17 in the third quarter.

There was a feeling of inside the stadium of … hey, maybe.

It was only a matter of time before the Buckeyes showed why they will be contenders for the College Football Playoff again. Their abundance of skill and speed on offense reduced the Gophers margin for error to nil.

One bad angle, one missed assignment, one bad penalty and … boom. The Buckeyes were zooming down the field toward the end zone.

Their collection of wide receivers and running backs will make a lot of defenses look slow and out of position, but the Gophers need to tighten things up, especially in the secondary.

On offense, the Gophers unveiled some new wrinkles that play to their strengths as a power running team.

The jumbo package. The use of wildcat formation. The unveiling of Wright as a playmaker on the outside to pair with Chris Autman-Bell when he returns from his ankle injury.

Opening the season against an opponent of that caliber is the ultimate measuring stick. The Gophers learned that they cannot match Ohio State's speed, but what does that mean for the rest of the season?

The opinion remains unchanged: The Gophers should contend in the West Division if they clean up things defensively and Ibrahim is not sidelined for an extended period.

What did Ryan Day say after the Minnesota game?