Ohio State football: Minnesota an immediate test for Buckeyes

The 132nd season of Ohio State football begins Thursday night when the Buckeyes take on Minnesota.

The Golden Gophers provide not just a Big Ten test but potentially a stern one for coach Ryan Day’s team, which as usual has national championship aspirations.

Here are five things to know about the game:

1. Opening with a Big Ten opponent changed how Day approached the offseason.

“We talked about this right from the jump at our first practice in the spring,” Day said Monday. “We knew this was something where we had to get game ready and come right out of the gate with a conference game on the road with a freshman quarterback (C.J. Stroud) and some young linebackers and some guys who have not played a lot of football.

“It was a challenge this spring to spend a lot of time on fundamentals and techniques. In the preseason, we tried to get as many game reps as we could. We tackled quite a bit in the preseason. We put in a lot of hard work and had a lot of physical practices out there. I’m proud of the work we’ve put in. I feel good going into this game, but you just don’t know what you’ve got until you get out there.”

2. He will look for some of the team’s veterans to provide a steadying presence for youngsters who have not started before — let alone under the lights against a Big Ten opponent’s home field.

“We have some veteran guys who have been practicing really well,” Day said. “It will be important when you go into some of these environments that they’ve played in these environments for them to play veteran and show leadership. That’s something we need going into this game.”

He mentioned senior receiver Chris Olave, safety Josh Proctor and defensive linemen Haskell Garrett and Zach Harrison by name.

“There is some confidence that can come off of those guys and they can impart on those other players,” Day said. “That’s something we’re looking for when we open with a game like this.”

3. Minnesota returns 10 starters on offense and 10 starters on defense after a disappointing 3-4 season in 2020.

The pandemic had a bigger impact on some teams than others — including the Golden Gophers — but many of the Golden Gophers veterans were also part of a 2019 squad that came within a game of making the Big Ten Championship Game.

That leads coach P.J. Fleck to hope last season will prove to be a footnote in the story of his rebuilding project.

“They are very well coached,” Day said. “P.J. does a good job there. They play hard, take care of the football and are fundamentally sound. They make you earn it. We’re going on the road to their place for the first game of the year.”

4. Quarterback Tanner Morgan and running back Mohamed Ibrahim headline an offense that also features a big, experienced line.

The pass-catchers are a question mark, however, as the team has lost stud receivers each of the past two years to the NFL (Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman).

Chris Autman-Bell could be next in line, but he has been battling a leg injury in preseason and may not be able to play.

Springfield High School graduate Mike Brown-Stephens is among a group of young receivers Fleck is looking to step up this season.

“Chris Autman-Bell has done a great job of leading our receivers and helping them grow up very fast, but Michael Brown-Stephens has to contribute at a very high level,” Fleck said during Big Ten Media Days in July. “We have a very, very fast wide receiver group. A lot of inexperience and a lot of talent, but a lot of speed. They’ve worked incredibly hard in the offseason to emerge to what they want to become, and Michael Brown-Stephens is going to have to emerge as a big-time playmaker for us to have a lot of success.”

5. Ohio State’s new-look linebacker corps could be put on the spot.

Defensive line is expected to again be a strength for the Buckeyes, but the linebackers are all new and have no time to waste proving they are ready for prime time.

The 5-10, 210-pound Ibrahim was among the most productive backs in the country last season and presents a major challenge.

“This guy is built low to the ground, and he breaks tackles,” Day said. “You look at this past week in the seven games that were played, there were 56 explosive plays. I think a lot of that was missed tackles. That’s why we spent a lot of time tackling in the preseason. We have to do a good job of getting him down.

“He is a very good running back and he runs hard. Their offensive line does a very good job getting movement. We will have to defeat blocks and tackle well.”

Linebacker Teradja Mitchell, a senior captain expected to join the starting lineup Thursday night, said the Buckeyes know they won’t be able to arm-tackle Ibrahim.

“I think he’s one of the better backs in the country, it’s definitely going to be a challenge for the defense,” Mitchell said.

On the bright side, redshirt freshman Miyan Williams — another bowling ball at 5-8, 225 — has given the Buckeyes a good look in practice as he fights for starting role himself.

Day indicated Williams and junior Master Teague III will get the majority of the carries this week while five-star super freshman TreVeyon Henderson is also involved in the game plan.

“Early on, the guys who have played a little bit we will lean on them,” Day said. “But Tre will get in there quickly. We will roll those guys and see how the game plays out a little bit. We’re going to play depth at that position.”


Ohio State at Minnesota, 8 p.m., Fox, 1410

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