COLUMBUS, OHIO – Mitch Leidner’s jaw was sore from the hit, but he refused to blame Saturday night’s loss on an overturned targeting call.
The Gophers quarterback watched Ohio State take advantage of that officiating decision to build a 21-point lead.
He weathered several other big hits but threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to make the top-ranked Buckeyes sweat out an eventual 28-14 victory before an announced 108,075 fans at Ohio Stadium.
“Some things, you can’t control,” Leidner said of the overturned call.
The Gophers (4-5, 1-4 Big Ten) were locked in a scoreless tie with the Buckeyes for the game’s first 25 minutes.
Minnesota faced third-and-6 from its own 12-yard line, when Leidner took a crunching hit from linebacker Joshua Perry, right after he released a pass.
Perry had blitzed up the middle and delivered a shot, which snapped Leidner’s head back. The referees originally flagged Perry for targeting, a penalty designed to improve player safety by outlawing helmet-to-helmet hits.
Leidner’s pass, intended for KJ Maye, went right to Buckeyes safety Vonn Bell, who returned it 16 yards for a touchdown. The penalty would have nullified the interception, with the Buckeyes getting a 15-yard penalty, and Perry would have been ejected.
The key to a targeting call is intent. Officials are looking for defenders who launch themselves into ball carriers, leading with the crown of their helmet, or making contact above the shoulders.
To reverse the call, the officials presumably needed evidence on video that Perry didn’t hit Leidner in the facemask. On the replays shown on ABC, Perry did not appear to leave his feet or launch himself upward into Leidner.
But it was hard to see conclusive evidence that he did not hit Leidner in the facemask.
“My jaw’s a little bit sore,” Leidner said. “I think it was just right underneath the chin’s where he got me and right kind of on the facemask there.”
Asked if he felt it was a targeting penalty, Gophers interim coach Tracy Claeys said, “Off replay, it did look like it hit him more in the chest and slid up. [Sunday], after I watch it, I will have a better idea.”
It also could have been roughing the passer, but the officials ruled that the hit came close enough to when Leidner released the pass. In the fourth quarter of last week’s loss to Michigan, Leidner took a big hit that was originally ruled roughing the passer and then overturned.
This time, Ohio State outplayed the Gophers soundly for the game’s next 25 minutes, so it’s hard to say the reversed targeting call cost Minnesota the game. But it certainly changed the tone.
The Gophers might have had a bigger gripe, but after holding Ohio State to 55 yards on its first four possessions, their defense sputtered. The Buckeyes faced third-and-18 from their own 15 and ran a quarterback draw. Not known for his running, Cardale Jones scampered for 19 yards.
Four plays later, Jones hit Jalin Marshall with a 44-yard pass, and then Ezekiel Elliott broke free for a 15-yard touchdown.
Ohio State made it 21-0 with 11:02 remaining in the third quarter, when Jones found Michael Thomas with a 6-yard touchdown pass.
The Gophers came back with touchdown passes from Leidner to KJ Maye (4 yards) and Rashad Still (10 yards). The second one came with 2:10 remaining, but the Gophers couldn’t recover the onside kick.
The Gophers still had their timeouts and forced a third-and-8. But once again, Jones hurt them with his feet. He took a quarterback draw 38 yards for the final touchdown with 1:53 remaining.
“When you play the No. 1 team in the country, and you are on the road, the margin for error is so small,” Claeys said. “We talked about that all week and just made one or two mistakes that we didn’t counter with our own big plays in the first half.
“It still comes down to we’ve got to find a way to get some points on the board in the first half and finish one or two drives. And then we are in better shape.”
Ohio State (9-0, 5-0) has now won 29 consecutive Big Ten regular season games, matching Florida State’s NCAA record conference winning streak.
Leidner finished with 281 passing yards, facing an Ohio State team that came in ranked second in the nation in pass defense (149.3).
“I’d say it was good to see us battle back there in the second half,” he said. “Especially when some things weren’t going our way offensively.”