By Jim Naveau
COLUMBUS – First, it was a struggle. Then briefly it was about survival. Finally, it was about relief when Ohio State beat Minnesota 28-14 on Saturday night.
An air of uncertainty hung over OSU coming into the game because it was playing without starting quarterback J.T. Barrett, who was suspended for one game after being cited for operating a vehicle while impaired during OSU’s bye week last Saturday.
And the Buckeyes spent much of the night trying to escape that uncertainty.
Ohio State (9-0, 5-0 Big Ten) got its 22nd win in a row but its offense started slowly and struggled to operate at peak efficiency much of the night.
It also got a bit of a scare from Minnesota (4-5, 1-4 Big Ten) when the Gophers scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns after OSU went up 21-0 to cut the lead to 21-14. But a 38-yard touchdown run by quarterback Cardale Jones with 1:53 to play made it 28-14 and finally put the game away.
OSU had 377 yards total offense, 87 yards short of its season average, and fell short of its Big Ten-leading average of 38.5 points a game without Barrett.
Ezekiel Elliott (26 carries, 114 yards) led Ohio State’s offense and went over 100 yards rushing for the fourteenth game in a row. The last team to hold him under 100 yards was Minnesota last year.
“I don’t think we played a clean game but I don’t want to take anything away from our opponent,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said.
“Offensively, we were sloppy and not executing at a high level. Once we got going we scored enough points to win. We just expect much more efficiency out of our offense,” he said.
To say Ohio State started slowly would be an understatement. Slow starts have been the rule rather than the exception for OSU this season, but this one was particularly sluggish.
In the first 25 minutes of the game, the Buckeyes had only 60 yards total offense and punted four straight times.
But in the last 4:53 of the first half they got two touchdowns – one by the defense and the other at the end of a seven-play, 77-yard drive that looked nothing like what the offense had produced before then.
Vonn Bell’s 16-yard interception return for a touchdown with 4:53 left in the first half broke up a scoreless game and provided a spark for OSU.
It took a replay review to get the points on the scoreboard, though, after an official called a targeting penalty on OSU linebacker Joshua Perry. The replay official determined that the targeting call should be reversed, though, and the touchdown stood.
After stopping Minnesota, the tentative Cardale Jones of the first 25 minutes was replaced by something close to the 2014 version, which helped OSU win the national championship.
Jones hit all three passes he threw during the scoring drive, including a 44-yarder to Jalin Marshall, and he scrambled for a 19-yard gain for a first down.
After Marshall’s catch, Ezekiel Elliott went 15 yard for a touchdown with 54 seconds left in the first half for a 14-0 lead.
Ohio State pushed the lead to 21-0 on a 6-yard touchdown pass from Jones to Michael Thomas with 6:43 left in the third quarter.
Minnesota cut the lead to 21-7 on a 4-yard touchdown pass from Mitch Leidner to K.J. Maye with 10:25 to play in the game, then made it 21-14 on a 10-yard throw from Leidner to Rashad Still with 2:10 left.
The Gophers attempted an unorthodox onside kick, which was more punt than kickoff, and it went out of bounds. Three plays later Jones showed a burst many people had begun to doubt he had on his 38-yard sprint to the endzone.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.