'We have a lot to build on here' After shaky first half, Buckeyes pull away to win opener against 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 Thursday night in front of a sellout crowd of 50,805 at rainy Huntington Bank Stadium.

"To say that I'm surprised with the way it played out, I'm not," said Ohio State coach Ryan 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, and I'm very excited coming out of that locker room."

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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.

Stroud finished with 294 passing yards on 13-of-22 passing, but his debut was not flawless, especially in the first half. He threw an interception to set up Minnesota's second touchdown and acknowledged feeling first-start jitters. Stroud threw for only 58 yards in the first two quarters as Minnesota controlled time of possession and took a 14-10 lead into halftime.

It was the first time Ohio State trailed entering the second half in a regular-season Big Ten game since 2018 against Maryland.

"In the game of football, you have your ups and downs," Stroud said. "Everything doesn't go the way it's supposed to. In the first half, my mind wasn't right. I was kind of a little all over the place a little bit. I talked to my teammates, was praying a lot, and tried to lock back in."

Day made his coaching reputation nurturing quarterbacks, and he encouraged Stroud after his shaky start.

"He and I had a conversation early on that we're going to keep swinging no matter what happened," Day said. "We're not going to play close to the vest. That's not the way we do it here. And he responded, but I think really, it was the guys around him."

It certainly helps to have Olave and Wilson, who combined for nine catches and 197 yards.

"The best receivers in the country," Stroud said.

Redshirt freshman Miyan Williams also provided a spark. He opened the scoring with a 71-yard run on which he admitted he broke the wrong direction. Williams finished with 127 yards in only nine carries.

The offense needed to produce because the defense struggled mightily at times. Ohio State opened the game with seven defenders making their first career starts, and the Buckeyes substituted liberally throughout the game.

Ohio State has new starting linebackers, and projected starting cornerbacks Cameron Brown and Sevyn Banks didn't play. Redshirt freshman Ryan Watts and true freshman Denzel Burke started in their place.

The defensive inexperience showed, mostly against Mohamed Ibrahim, the Big Ten Running Back of the Year in 2020. He gained 163 yards on 30 carries and scored two touchdowns before leaving with an injury late in the third quarter, reportedly to his Achilles tendon.

But the Buckeyes' defense did make probably the game's most pivotal play. Following Wilson's score to put the Buckeyes ahead 24-21, junior defensive end Zach Harrison stripped the ball from Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan, and senior defensive tackle Haskell Garrett scooped it and ran 32 yards for a touchdown.

"Anytime you get a defensive score, whether it's a blocked punt or something like that, that flips the scoreboard," Day said. "It really is a huge game-changer."

Minnesota, which has 20 returning starters, twice scored after that to make it a one-possession game. Each time, the Buckeye offense answered.

The clincher came with 4½ minutes left and Ohio State ahead 38-31. Stroud rolled to his right and had an open receiver short. But he spotted Olave deeper and cut loose. Olave caught it, tight-roped the sideline and scored to put the game out of reach.

For Stroud, it was the perfect capper to a starting debut that had a little bit of everything.

"There were a lot of things he was doing for the first time, and when that happens, it takes some time," Day said of Stroud. "You've got to give him a lot of credit. There were a couple times where things weren't really going well. He missed some passes. But he fought through it."

So did his teammates.

"At halftime, we really came together as a team," Miyan Williams said. "It was like, 'We can't lose. We've just got to keep going and find a way.' That's what we did."



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