Moments before last week’s kickoff against Michigan, Gophers interim coach Tracy Claeys gathered the players for a few last words.
He knew how badly everyone wanted to win for recently retired coach Jerry Kill. He just wanted to make sure that energy was channeled properly.
“Playing on emotion causes problems, and it’s short,” Claeys said in a speech shown on ESPN. “You play with great passion. Everybody understand that? Remember, passion lasts forever.”
The Gophers pushed heavily favored Michigan, only to lose 29-26, after failing to score on the final two plays from inside the 1-yard line.
If Claeys’ squad follows that disappointment with the proverbial letdown, it could make for a long Saturday when the Gophers visit No. 1 Ohio State.
“We’ll know if it’s crushing [losing to Michigan, based on] how it goes this week,” Claeys said. “But they’ll bounce back. They’re a great group of competitors. We have another great opportunity. So we’ll be ready to go.”
The Gophers haven’t visited 105,000-seat Ohio Stadium since 2009, which is before any of their current players were on the roster.
They faced the Buckeyes last November, at TCF Bank Stadium, where it was 15 degrees with snow flurries throughout the game. Ohio State was ranked No. 8 at the time and committed three turnovers, leading to 21 Minnesota points.
After escaping Minneapolis with a 31-24 victory, the Buckeyes shifted into a whole new gear, beating archrival Michigan, destroying Wisconsin 59-0 in the Big Ten Championship Game and then knocking off Alabama and Oregon to win the first College Football Playoff.
Ohio State has been ranked No. 1 this year since the preseason poll, and debuted at No. 3 this week in the first College Football Playoff rankings, behind Clemson and LSU.
When it comes to premium talent, no team is loaded quite like these Buckeyes. CBSSports.com has eight Ohio State players ranked among its top 50 NFL prospects. Ohio State is a 23-point favorite against the Gophers, with the Buckeyes well-rested, coming off a bye week.
“If we go in and play the Buckeyes like last year — they’re a lot of the same guys, a lot of the same faces — we have a good opportunity to beat them,” Gophers linebacker Jack Lynn said.
The last two times the Gophers faced the No. 1 team in the country, it was Ohio State, with Minnesota losing both, in 2006 and 1998. The Gophers are 0-7 in their past seven games against the nation’s top-ranked team, with their last victory over No. 1 coming in 1977 against Michigan.
Lynn thought the key to keeping last year’s game close was limiting the impact of Buckeyes running back Ezekiel Elliott. He had 18 carries for 91 yards in that game. It was the last time he didn’t rush for at least 100 yards, as the sophomore has passed the century mark in a nation’s-best 13 consecutive games.
The Buckeyes have to overcome starting quarterback J.T. Barrett’s one-game suspension for last weekend’s drunken-driving arrest. Of course, Cardale Jones gives Ohio State a pretty good fallback option. He quarterbacked the Buckeyes to their national title, and he’s one of those top-50 NFL prospects.
The Gophers need to prove their resilience. History shows it’s been tough for them to come back from painful losses.
When they blew their 21-point, fourth-quarter lead to Michigan in 2003, they also stumbled the next week against Michigan State. And when Wisconsin blocked a last-minute punt to steal a 2005 win at the Metrodome, the Gophers lost the following week 45-31 to Ohio State.
“We won’t have a letdown, I believe that,” Claeys said. “You’re not very competitive if you can’t get ready to play this game — No. 1 team in the country, going into a great stadium.
“We have to make sure we play our brand of football and not make a lot of mistakes. If we do that, I think we showed a year ago that we’ll have an opportunity in the fourth quarter.”