Urban Meyer thought Minnesota proved something Saturday, even if the Gophers themselves refused to look at it that way. They brushed off the moral victory talk as if it was more of the light snow that fell throughout the game.
But Meyer watched the Gophers turn three turnovers into 21 points. He watched cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun make big plays all over the field. And he watched David Cobb rush for 145 yards and three touchdowns.
With freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett bolstering his Heisman résumé, the No. 8 Buckeyes never looked in serious jeopardy of losing. But they had to fend off a late Gophers comeback attempt for a 31-24 victory before an announced crowd of 45,778 at TCF Bank Stadium.
Ohio State (9-1, 6-0 Big Ten) needs to keep impressing the College Football Playoff selection committee, and the one-touchdown win might raise eyebrows, since the Buckeyes were nearly two-touchdown favorites.
Still, Meyer said “any coach in America” who watches the game film would agree the Gophers (7-3, 4-2) are a Top 25 team.
“I’d like to see any team in the country come up here and do this,” Meyer said. “Play here in November, against a very good team. … Have at it.”
At 15 degrees for kickoff, it was the Gophers’ coldest game in five years at TCF Bank Stadium. Afterward, they were too busy dwelling on their mistakes to think about much else.
They let Barrett devour them with big play after big play. It started with his 86-yard touchdown run in the first quarter, and he added three touchdown passes. He was 15-for-25 for 200 yards and set an Ohio State quarterback record with 189 yards rushing.
“That’s the No. 8 team in the country,” Boddy-Calhoun said. “We proved that we cannot only hang, but we have a really strong chance of beating them if we don’t make some of the mistakes that we did on defense.”
The offense was far from perfect, too. The Gophers were outgained 489-303.
Mitch Leidner completed only seven of 19 passes for 85 yards, with two third-quarter interceptions.
“I’ve got to pick it up; I’ve got to do better,” Leidner said. “We have to keep moving forward because our season isn’t done yet. We’re a hungry football team. We’re going to keep bringing it.”
The Gophers fell one game behind Wisconsin for first place in the Big Ten West. With two regular season games remaining — at Nebraska, then at Wisconsin — coach Jerry Kill reminded his players that they still control their own destiny.
But when Kill met with the media and started going through his team’s lapses, he pounded a water bottle on a table and splashed on himself.
Defensive breakdowns allowed Ohio State to open a quick 14-0 lead. Boddy-Calhoun had a 56-yard interception return, and a forced fumble near Minnesota’s goal line helped the Gophers come back to tie it 14-14 late in the second quarter.
But Barrett drove the Buckeyes back down the field, and Sean Nuernberger hit a 22-yard field goal as time expired, giving Ohio State a 17-14 halftime lead.
The Gophers got the ball to start the third quarter, and Ryan Santoso bounced a tying 52-yard field goal attempt off the left upright.
Three minutes later, Barrett passed 30 yards to a wide-open Michael Thomas for a touchdown. Gophers safeties Cedric Thompson and Derrick Wells appeared to have a communication breakdown on that play, as Thompson took the underneath route, leaving Thomas alone in the end zone.
“I’m not going to blame the kids,” Kill said. “We were trying to get a timeout. It was so cold our headsets wouldn’t switch over, so that’s a unique situation. That’s the first time that’s happened in my coaching career. Anyhow, not the kids’ fault. We made some errors, and you can’t do that against a great football team.”
Leidner threw interceptions on Minnesota’s next two possessions, and Evan Spencer made it 31-14 with 10 minutes remaining, when he took a screen pass 22 yards for a touchdown.
The Gophers still had chances. Jalin Marshall fumbled a punt at Ohio State’s 14, and Cobb scored two plays later, trimming the lead to 10.
With 1:23 remaining, the Gophers had the ball at the Ohio State 17, and Kill had them kick a field goal on second down. Santoso drilled the 34-yard try, but the Gophers couldn’t recover the onside kick.
“We drove as far as we could, and we wanted to save time on the clock so we kicked the field goal, and then we had a chance,” Kill said. “But didn’t get it, and move on.”
Ohio State moved on, too, feeling fortunate to escape.
“Tough environment,” Meyer said. “The first time I’ve ever been here. I don’t want to see this on the schedule for a while, certainly not in November.”