COLUMBUS, OHIO – The Gophers needed everything to break right Saturday night to have a chance against heavyweight Ohio State.
They needed an A-plus effort and a little luck.
For most of the first half, their plan unfolded better than anyone could have imagined, until a bang-bang hit on Mitch Leidner brought their positive vibe to a screeching halt.
With the game still scoreless late in the second quarter, Leidner dropped back to pass inside his own 5-yard line. Linebacker Joshua Perry had a free run at him.
What happened next was either targeting or a hard, legal hit. One’s view probably depends on his or her rooting interest.
Perry blasted Leidner up high with his helmet, causing Leidner’s head to snap backward before he tumbled to the turf. Perry finished his hit by shoving Leidner.
Leidner’s pass intended for KJ Maye was intercepted by Vonn Bell and returned 16 yards for a touchdown.
An official threw his flag and called Perry for targeting, which would have negated the interception. But after checking replays to determine if targeting occurred, the call was reversed and Ohio State led 7-0.
Gophers interim coach Tracy Claeys said officials told him that Perry’s helmet landed on Leidner’s sternum and slid up toward his chin. Leidner said his jaw was “a little bit sore” from the hit.
Claeys had not seen a close replay when he met with reporters after the game.
“It wasn’t a late hit,” Claeys said. “It was that they thought the contact was with the facemask, head to head. And the review showed that the hit was in the chest. So they picked up the flag.”
I watched the hit on replay probably 20 times and went back and forth. Various angles made it look differently. I talked myself in circles. But given football’s heightened awareness on player safety, the decision to overturn a penalty resulting from a high hit on a defenseless quarterback seems questionable.
Claeys refused to complain publicly.
“It’s part of the game,” Claeys said. “I don’t have any control over it so we’re moving on.”
The reversal altered momentum and gave Ohio State a spark, but one objectionable call didn’t decide the outcome, a 28-14 Ohio State victory.
A few costly mistakes also undermined a gritty effort by the Gophers. As 24-point underdogs, the Gophers had a tiny margin for error. “They’re a good football team and we battled with them foot to foot,” Claeys said.
Ohio State has won 22 consecutive games and tied an FBS record by winning its 29th conference game in a row. No team can match the Buckeyes’ collection of blue-chip talent.
The Gophers had to play nearly flawlessly to leave Ohio Stadium with an upset. But they weren’t intimidated. They refused to be pushovers.
Claeys and acting coordinator Jay Sawvel put together an aggressive game plan, and the defense didn’t look overmatched against an offense that leads the Big Ten in scoring at nearly 40 points per game.
Ohio State was without starting quarterback J.T. Barrett, serving a one-game suspension after being cited for drunken driving last week.
His absence gave Cardale Jones another opportunity to run the offense ,and his performance in the first half showed why Urban Meyer switched quarterbacks midseason.
Jones looked confused and hesitant against pressure. The Gophers sacked him three times in the first half and forced a fumble on another sack in the third quarter.
The Gophers limited Ohio State to 137 yards and seven offensive points in the first half.
The problem came on the other side of the ball. Ohio State’s defense stymied the Gophers long enough to build a 21-0 lead entering the fourth quarter.
The Gophers got virtually nothing from their running game, which put more pressure on Leidner to carry the load against the nation’s second-ranked pass defense.
Two fourth-quarter touchdown passes from Leidner pulled the Gophers to within seven points with less than three minutes remaining. But Jones iced the game with a 38-yard touchdown run with 1:53 left.
The Gophers competed hard, showed some fight, but they came up short vs. the best team in college football.
No shame in that.