COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio State defense is sharper now because of the fretting, planning, tinkering and honing of coordinator Jim Knowles after the Buckeyes were repeatedly ripped by big plays in the demoralizing loss to Michigan last year.
One of the measures of a defense is how many “explosive” plays it allows, those that go for 20 yards or more. The Buckeyes gave up six in the 45-23 drubbing in The Game — five of them for touchdowns. Knowles, who was hired away from Oklahoma State to transform the defense, spent much of his time in the past year on that particular problem.
“(We’re) gearing towards the matchup games, where we were not successful last year and mainly because of explosive plays,” Knowles said. “So you have a lot of study, a lot of planning. I think you’re seeing the benefits of that now.”
The nation's fourth-ranked defense, allowing about 262 total yards per game, will first have to contend with Minnesota (5-5, 3-4 Big Ten) on Saturday in Columbus before getting another shot at the Wolverines in this year's edition of The Game on Nov. 25.
“We know what it felt like to come up short last year,” safety Sonny Styles said. “We’ve made a big emphasis on not leaving anything out on the field. As a defense, we’ve emphasized eliminating explosives on our mistakes. We can’t give them free plays.”
Ohio State (10-0, 7-0) will have to be on guard against overlooking beat-up Minnesota, a four-touchdown underdog limping toward its worst season since 2018. The Golden Gophers need a win over the Buckeyes or Wisconsin in the final week to get to bowl eligibility for a third consecutive season under P.J. Fleck.
“It’s a Big Ten game here in November, and so we have to do a great job of preparing for it like any other game," Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. "(Like) any other game — it has no bearing on what’s coming down in the future."
Offensively, the Buckeyes have become efficient and prolific. Last week they crushed Michigan State 38-3, with first-year starting quarterback Kyle McCord throwing for 335 yards and three touchdowns, two to Heisman Trophy hopeful Marvin Harrison Jr. It could have been worse for the Spartans, but Day backed off in the second half.
The Golden Gophers lost to Purdue last week 49-30. Injuries have hurt their consistency.
“We've shown flashes on all three phases of being a really good football team,” Fleck said. "And when you look at the next 12 days of how they can keep improving and get better, especially with how hard they are playing, anything can happen.”
FAREWELL TO MARV?
Harrison is in his third year but likely will play his last game at Ohio Stadium on Saturday before leaving early and becoming a likely first-round NFL draft pick next spring. Harrison just surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for a second consecutive season, the first player in school history to accomplish that. He had two touchdown catches last week and his first career rushing touchdown.
Ohio State's best defensive player, linebacker Tommy Eichenberg, could be back for his last game in the Horseshoe. Dealing with an arm injury, he could have played last week but was held out as a precaution, Day said.
Safety Josh Proctor (head) could also return after missing last week's game, but safety Lathan Ransom will likely be out for the rest of the regular season, Day said. Defensive lineman Mike Hall is questionable after leaving the Michigan State game with an apparent injury.
The Gophers have struggled without top linebacker Cody Lindenberg, who missed the first seven games with a leg injury. He started the next two games, tallying a team-high 11 tackles against Illinois with a key forced fumble in the fourth quarter that set up a Minnesota touchdown. But after being listed as questionable to play at Purdue, he was held out again. Then his backup, Maverick Baranowski, left the game in the first quarter with an injury. Freshman Matt Kingsbury had to fill in.
Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis has had plenty of growing pains in his first full season as the starter, but the sophomore has shown some progress recently with seven touchdown passes and only one interception over his last four games. His connection with Daniel Jackson, who is third in the Big Ten with 681 receiving yards, has been especially strong.
“I think he’s getting more consistent,” Fleck said. “By no means can you sit there and say, ’He’s an elite quarterback in the Big Ten right now,' and I don’t know if he’d stand up here and tell you that. I think he’s working to become that every single day, and I appreciate that from him."
AP Sports Writer Dave Campbell contributed from Minneapolis.
Get alerts on the latest AP Top 25 poll throughout the season. Sign up here
AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll and https://apnews.com/hub/college-football