Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck expects no drop-off from visiting Ohio State on Thursday even though the No. 4 Buckeyes have to find replacements at several positions, including quarterback.
“They’ve lost some guys, but they’re a team that reloads,” Fleck said. “They don’t rebuild as they have very talented guys that are coming in and playing. So, at every position they have depth and experience and they’ve got guys that are really, really talented.
“We’ve got to be the best team we can be on Thursday night. That’s where my focus lies, and that’s what we’ll continue to focus on.”
Ohio State was 7-1 in 2020 and lost in the College Football Playoff title game to Alabama, 52-24. The Buckeyes are favored to win a fifth straight Big Ten title and appear in a third straight CFP.
“We’re expected to be the best,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said last spring. “With that comes great responsibility. We’ll wake up every day and just grind.
“I keep using the word ‘obsessed.’ Our players have to become obsessed with maximizing themselves in the weight room, watching film and getting themselves prepared to play against Minnesota.”
The answer to the Buckeyes’ biggest offseason question came Aug. 21 when redshirt freshman C.J. Stroud was named the successor to Justin Fields, a 2021 first-round pick by the Chicago Bears.
Stroud won the competition over fellow 2020 four-star recruit Jack Miller, 2021 five-star prospect Kyle McCord, and Quinn Ewers, who was the top overall recruit in the class of 2022 in the 247Sports composite rankings but opted to graduate early from high school and enrolled at Ohio State in mid-August.
Wide receiver Garrett Wilson is confident Stroud can handle the pressure of replacing Fields.
“The big thing with C.J. was just that leadership role,” he said. “We had that with Justin last year. With him leaving, we needed someone to step up into that role. He’s been huge in that.”
None of the quarterbacks on the Ohio State roster has thrown a pass in a college game. That might be a problem, except Wilson and Chris Olave lead a receiving corps that Fleck said is the best he’s ever seen.
“I can go through every single one of them, and I mean, I stand behind my statement,” Fleck said. “That’s not something to butter people up. That’s a compliment.”
Minnesota, which finished 3-4 last season, has fourth-year quarterback Tanner Morgan to exploit an inexperienced secondary that was 122nd out of 127 Division I teams in pass defense last season.
His favorite target will be Chris Autman-Bell, who made 22 catches last season and is Minnesota’s top returning wideout. However, Autman-Bell is dealing with a leg injury, and his status for Thursday is unclear.
The Golden Gophers also rely on Mohamed Ibrahim, the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year who rushed for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns in seven games.
Minnesota has a veteran team that views last season’s record during the COVID-19 pandemic as an anomaly to an 11-2 mark in 2019.
“They’re a very connected team and they’re very together,” Fleck said. “They’re grateful for their opportunities every single day.”
–Field Level Media