Special teams sink Minnesota

David McCoy

You’ve heard the phrase “touch ’em all.”

That’s what Ohio State kicker Josh Huston did.

Ted Ginn Jr. hit the home run.

Huston booted all eight of his kickoffs into the back of Minnesota’s end zone for touchbacks, and Ginn’s 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown highlighted a 45-31 Ohio State win Saturday at the Metrodome in which the Buckeyes’ special teams provided the critical advantage.

“We allowed Ohio State to play on the short end of the field,” Minnesota coach Glen Mason said. “And we had to play on the long end of the field all day long because of an inadequate kicking game.

“It’s awful tough to be successful when offensively you always have to go the long route.”

Field position played a crucial role in the game.

Much of Minnesota’s 578 yards of total offense – the second-most a Buckeyes team has ever given up – can be explained by the long distances the Gophers had to drive the entire game.

Because of Huston’s booming kickoffs, three punts inside the Gophers’ 21-yard line by A.J. Trapasso and a failed fourth down conversion by Ohio State, Minnesota (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten) started only one of its 13 possessions past its own 24 yard line.

That possession resulted in Minnesota’s second touchdown of the game – a 5-yard touchdown pass from Bryan Cupito to Jared Ellerson that tied the game 17-17 before halftime.

On Ohio State’s first drive of the game, Troy Smith hit Santonio Holmes with a 41-yard touchdown pass to take an early 7-0 lead. After a 31-yard field goal by Huston, Minnesota capped an 80-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run by Laurence Maroney to pull within three.

But on the ensuing kickoff, Ginn ran untouched through Minnesota’s kick coverage to swing the momentum back to the Buckeyes. The Gophers kicked it away from the dangerous Ginn every other time.

“That was a strategy,” Mason said. “You don’t want to give up a touchdown, but you hate to pop it up and let them return it to the 40 or 45 and play on a short field.

“You’re darned if you do, and darned if you don’t. I hate to say it, because it sounds like a defeatist attitude because you are spotting them a 10-yard return at the least by doing that.”

Ohio State scored four second-half touchdowns, aided by great field position. Antonio Pittman’s 67-yard touchdown run straight up the middle was from the Buckeyes’ worst starting point of the half.

Following a failed fourth-down conversion by Minnesota, Smith led the Buckeyes down the field for another score. That drive was capped by a 27-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Anthony Gonzalez to put Ohio State up 31-17.

Minnesota’s Gary Russell scored both Gophers second-half touchdowns, each from 1 yard out.

His first touchdown pulled Minnesota within seven points of the Buckeyes, but short fields for Ohio State once again doomed the Gophers.

After starting on Minnesota’s 37-yard line because of a punt that netted only 17 yards, Pittman scored again on a 4-yard run.

A fumble by Maroney early in the fourth quarter gave the Buckeyes the ball on Minnesota’s 28-yard line.

“I thought the biggest momentum change was when we fumbled the ball,” Mason said. “I don’t know. I thought there was a momentum change when we stopped them on fourth down, but that’s football. It happens.”

Despite racking up 114 yards and a touchdown in the first half against the nation’s top run defense, Maroney was held to just 13 yards in the second half.

Cupito and Ellerson both had career games. The junior quarterback went 26-of-35 for a career-high 396 yards and a touchdown while Ellerson caught five passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.

“We have to help out the run game and I think we did that today, but not enough obviously to win,” Cupito said. “Those guys stepped it up big today and I am proud of the way our receivers played.”

After Maroney’s fumble, it took Ohio State just three plays to go up three touchdowns. A 30-yard touchdown pass from Smith to Holmes put Ohio State on top 45-24 and emptied the Metrodome seats of the announced crowd of 54,825.

Gophers linpebacker John Shevlin said field position made all the difference in the decisive second half.

“Offensively, we had a long field,” Shevlin said. “And defensively, we had a short field. And that’s tough.”