U vs. Ohio State: Here’s where the talking ends

by John R. Carter

If you enjoy juicy, scandalous subplots, you’ll love Saturday’s Minnesota-Ohio State football game and all the recent history surrounding the two programs.

Over the past three years, on and off-field relations between the schools could be mistaken for the storyline from a New York Times best-selling drama.

From demands of respect to job interviews to game predictions, the Gophers-Buckeyes battle has developed into a rivalry intriguing enough to convince ESPN to air a game between two unranked teams in primetime on Saturday night.

“With all the stuff that’s gone on over the years it is a big game,” Gophers safety Jack Brewer said.

In 1998, after a 45-15 drubbing in Columbus, the Buckeyes apparently refused to shake hands with the Gophers.

Then, a year later, No. 22 Ohio State went into the Metrodome and knocked off No. 24 Minnesota. Once again, many Buckeyes players elected not to recognize their Gophers counterparts with handshakes.

Last season, the Gophers exacted revenge by upsetting the fifth-ranked Buckeyes in the Horseshoe on Homecoming. The loss marked the beginning of the end for then-coach John Cooper.

This brings us to last winter. Minnesota coach Glen Mason, an Ohio State alum, put his heart and soul into the Buckeyes coaching vacancy only to be beaten out by Jim Tressel, a career Division I-AA head coach.

Now this: Minnesota receiver Antoine Burns and his mouth.

Following last Saturday’s win over Murray State, Burns – who wasn’t even around in ’99 and missed ’00 with an injury – guaranteed a Gophers win this season.

“We’re going to go out and beat Ohio State next week,” Burns said.

But don’t think getting caught up in the emotion is always beneficial.

“The team that doesn’t allow those things to distract them will win the game,” Tressel said. “I don’t know anything about two years ago, or anything else. The only thing I know about Mason is that outside Minnesota, he loves Ohio State second best.”

Mason may have a deep passion for the Buckeyes, but his players certainly don’t.

“It has a lot to do with respect,” defensive end Greg White said. “When we get that from them we’ll be happy, and until then we’re going to go out there and play hard regardless.”

This season’s Buckeyes (4-3, 2-2) are far from the Ohio State teams who went to 10 consecutive bowl games, averaging just 2.7 loses a year, from 1989-98.

The 2001 Buckeyes have lost two straight Big Ten games to Wisconsin and Penn State, blowing leads of 17 and 18 points, respectively.

Ohio State fans can thank quarterback Steve Bellisari for many of the recent struggles. The senior completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes and threw crucial interceptions in both games.

On the season he’s averaging just 161.9 passing yards per game with twice as many interceptions (six) than touchdowns.

As for Minnesota’s quarterback situation, expect Asad Abdul-Khaliq to start for the fourth straight week. The sophomore took snaps with the first-team offense this week in practice.

And while attention during the game should be on the quarterbacks and their ability to lead their teams, many eyes are sure to be on Mason – making sure he doesn’t attempt another flee to the Ohio State sidelines.

Minnesota’s fifth-year man won’t admit it, but this is his most-desired victory of the season.

“I wanted to win real bad last year, and I want to win real bad this year,” Mason said. “I hate to lose, I don’t care who we’re playing.”

He’ll be suffering all the more if he loses to the team that denied Mason his dream.