Ohio State runs away with Gophers’ bowl hopes

by Anthony Maggio

The athletes knew it was a big game.

Between the subplots and season records, much was at stake for both teams.

But after losing to Ohio State 31-28 Saturday evening, do or die took on an even greater meaning for Minnesota’s football team.

“We want to go to another bowl,” quarterback Asad Abdul-Khaliq said. “We don’t want to finish the season and say we’ll do it next year.”

For that to happen, the Gophers must win their final three games – not exactly an easy task for the Big Ten cellar dwellers, considering Minnesota has only won three games all season.

Compounding the Gophers problems is the opponents they will face, starting with Michigan.

The Wolverines have only one conference loss this season, a 26-24 defeat on Saturday at Michigan State.

Michigan’s style of offense is similar to Ohio State’s, and the Buckeyes ran all over the Gophers.

“Our offensive coaches did a nice job of building an attack,” Ohio State coach Jim Tressel said.

Ohio State rushed for 265 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry.

Between running back Jonathan Wells and quarterback Steve Bellisari, Minnesota had its hands full stopping the run.

“The most disappointing thing for us was our inability to contain (Bellisari) on the quarterback draw,” coach Glen Mason said.

The defense struggled all evening, and were unable to take advantage of an Ohio State offense which has been mediocre at best this season.

The Buckeyes entered the game with Bellisari at six interceptions on the season. The Gophers didn’t pick off a ball on Saturday. Ohio State had also given up 19 sacks on the year. Minnesota didn’t take down Bellisari even once.

Bellisari ran the ball 11 times for 66 yards, a far cry from the 2.4 yards a game he was averaging before Saturday.

Even more surprising, however, was the Ohio State passing game. Bellisari passed for 203 yards and two touchdowns.

The biggest pass of the game came early in the fourth quarter. Freshman cornerback Ukee Dozier, who Bellisari picked on all evening, had good coverage on wide receiver Chris Vance.

Bellisari threw a deep pass to the right side of the end zone, and it appeared Dozier would make the play. Dozier got his hands on the pass, but Vance caught the tipped ball as he fell, putting Ohio State up 28-20.

On the ensuing Gophers possession, Abdul-Khaliq came out of the game with leg cramps after leading Minnesota to the Buckeyes 41 yard-line. Mason was not pleased Abdul-Khaliq had to leave the game.

“I don’t know how we have leg cramps,” Mason said. “We go down to play Baylor in 200-degree weather and we don’t have a problem because I force water down their throats and make them drink pickle juice.

“So I don’t care if it’s snowing when we go to Ann Arbor next week, we’ll drink pickle juice.”

Travis Cole relieved Abdul-Khaliq, but was only for a quartet of plays.

On fourth down with four yards to go, Cole threw a low pass to Ron Johnson. The officials ruled the ball hit the ground, but after the game Johnson said he made the catch.

Johnson caught four passes for 59 yards on the day, and set a third Minnesota record in the process. Johnson caught a 29-yard pass in the second quarter to surpass Tutu Atwell’s 2,640 career receiving yards. Johnson now sits at 2,661 yards as a Gopher.

After Minnesota turned the ball over on downs, Ohio State marched downfield and kicked a field goal with 4:17 left in the game.

The Gophers scored on a two-yard run from Abdul-Khaliq with under two minutes left but were unable to recover the on-side kick.

Ohio State ran out the clock from then on, as Minnesota’s defense stayed true to form and was unable to slow down Wells.

As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the bowl-hopeful Gophers margin for error slimmed to nothing.

Last season, Minnesota beat Ohio State for its third-straight win, moving to 5-2 for the year, but followed with three consecutive losses.

The Gophers now hope things will again change directions and they can come up with the three wins needed to be bowl eligible.

“We just need to win,” Johnson said. “That’s the bottom line. No tricks, no talking about it, just play hard and win.”

Mason said the players shouldn’t have to talk about needing three straight wins to make a bowl, because playing Big Ten football is exciting enough.

If the Gophers leave Ann Arbor with a loss, excitement is all they will be playing for.

Anthony Maggio covers football and
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