When the Gophers take to the Ohio Stadium field Saturday, they will be playing the third-ranked Buckeyes, the reigning Big Ten champions with serious College Football Playoff aspirations.
The Gophers? Well, they’ve given up 90 points in back-to-back Big Ten losses and enter the game as 29½-point underdogs. Quite simply, a Minnesota win would go down as the upset of the season in college football.
“You can get caught up in the big stadium and all the fans and that, and just them being the No. 3 team in the nation right now,” Gophers senior linebacker Blake Cashman said. “But you’ve just got to forget about that and understand they’re a football team, just like us. They sweat just like we do, they bleed like we do, they went through two-a-days just like we did.”
With that approach, Cashman has some kindred spirits on the 2000 and 1981 Gophers squads, which were the only ones to beat Ohio State in the past 40 meetings. What some of the key figures from those teams remember is belief turning to confidence, then to victory.
“We put the time in to win,” said Mike Hohensee, the quarterback who engineered the Gophers’ 35-31 victory in 1981 at Memorial Stadium by passing for 444 yards and five touchdowns. “We didn’t just go out there and try hard. We tried hard with a purpose.”
Glen Mason coached the 2000 Gophers to a 29-17 victory at Ohio State. “On any given day, if you have a bunch of guys who play together better as a team, you can beat anybody, even if they have more talent,” he said. “That was a classic example.”
Ohio State leads the all-time series 44 wins to seven, with only two of those Gophers victories coming in the last half-century. But they are a memorable two:
Nov. 7, 1981, Minneapolis: Gophers 35, No. 18 Ohio State 31
The 1981 Gophers, coached by Joe Salem, were by no means also-rans. They entered the game 5-3 and had just upset No. 6 Iowa 12-10 two weeks earlier. Still, facing the 6-2 Buckeyes — who were led by quarterback Art Schlichter — was daunting.
Hohensee, however, saw something in scouting the Buckeyes defense that piqued his interest.
“To win that kind of game, you’ve got to believe you can win that kind of game,” Hohensee said. “I don’t know if that truly happened until midway through the week when we started watching film — especially players watching film together and noticing a few tendencies by one certain player.” That player — who Hohensee to this day won’t identify — would tip off his intentions by his stance or by creeping up to the line of scrimmage, then backing off.
“I remember talking to [wide receiver] Chester Cooper in our meeting. I said, ‘Coop, I think we’ve got him,’ ” Hohensee said. “He just got that big Chester Cooper smile.”
Did they ever get that Buckeyes defender. Hohensee completed 37 of 67 passes, and 12 of the completions for 182 yards went to Cooper. Both receiving numbers were school records at the time, as was Hohensee’s 444 passing yards.
Cooper wasn’t the only one hauling in passes. Sophomore tight end Jay Carroll, making his second start, caught three TD passes, including the game-winner with 2:38 left.
Carroll remembers how easily he was getting open against the Buckeyes defense, which often covered him with a linebacker.
“I kept going back to Hohensee and saying, ‘They’re not covering me’ — which every receiver says to the quarterback after every route,” Carroll said. “… Hohensee gave me a, ‘Yeah, I got ya.’ Not too long after that, he hit me on a wheel route going up the sideline for my first touchdown of the game.”
Carroll almost doesn’t remember that TD, because he slipped on concrete adjacent to the end zone and banged into Memorial Stadium’s brick wall. “It dang near knocked me out,” he said.
Ohio State held a 31-21 lead midway through the fourth quarter. Hohensee’s 18-yard TD pass to Carroll with 6:56 left cut it to 31-28, and they connected again for the winner when Carroll caught a 28-yard pass that was tipped by Buckeyes defensive back Kevin Bell.
“I knew immediately what had happened,” Carroll said. “My gosh, we had beaten Ohio State.”
He celebrated by making a sign of the cross with the football. “It really was just me exuding my gratefulness and thankfulness that this miracle had occurred,” Carroll said.
Hohensee, a California native, was touched by what the first win over Ohio State since 1966 meant to his teammates from Minnesota.
“To see the joy in the locker room and to see tears in their eyes …” said the longtime Arena Football League coach who now works in sales in the Chicago area. “You understood the importance of that game and the importance of that win.”
Oct. 14, 2000, Columbus: Gophers 29, No. 6 Ohio State 17
After 1981, the Gophers lost 16 straight to the Buckeyes, but then came 2000, when Mason — a former Ohio State player and coach — brought his team to the Horseshoe.
“It was mid-October in Columbus and an absolutely gorgeous day,” Mason remembered. “… Typically, when I went back there, in pregame there would be people in the stands yelling at me. Some were, ‘Hi!’ and some were, ‘We’re going to kick your butt,’ laughing about it.”
Turns out, the Gophers would be the ones doing the kicking. Behind eight catches for 163 yards and a touchdown by wide receiver Ron Johnson, the Gophers controlled the game. Travis Cole passed for 243 yards and two TDs, and Tellis Redmon rushed for 118 yards and a score. The Gophers got off to a 10-0 lead and never let the Buckeyes pull ahead.
“When we got up 10-0, we weren’t worried about them being the No. 6 team in the country,” said Johnson, who battled Buckeyes cornerback Nate Clements, a future first-round draft pick who played 12 years in the NFL.
On the morning of the game, Mason gave his team advice on how to deal with the huge crowd.
“I said, ‘Fellas, you’re going into Ohio Stadium. There will be 108,000 people. You will not believe how loud it gets. But let me give you a little tip. Here’s how it works: If it gets quiet, you’re doing good. If you hear some boos, you’re doing really good.’
“So, toward the end of the game, one of the players came up to me and said, ‘Coach, we’re doing great.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘They’re leaving.’ ”
Johnson had a similar story, with the Gophers driving for their final touchdown.
“At one point on one of my deep balls, my mom was getting interviewed by [ESPN’s] Holly Rowe,” he said. “It was so quiet that when I caught the ball, I could hear my mom scream.
“We had taken them out of the game — not just physically but mentally. They couldn’t believe they were losing to Minnesota.”
The victory was the Gophers’ first in Columbus since 1949, and Mason recalled the reaction of longtime broadcaster Ray Christensen.
“He came up to me after the game, and he literally was crying,” Mason said. “… Ray said, ‘I never thought I’d see the day.’ ”