When a national championship contender trails at the half against an unranked opponent in Week 1, questions are bound to arise. No. 4 Ohio State answered all of them and more by outscoring Minnesota 35-17 in the second half Thursday on its way to a rousing 45-31 win in Minneapolis to kick off the 2021 college football season.
After throwing an early interception, Buckeyes quarterback C.J. Stroud hunkered down and relied on his team's immense playmaking talent. Stroud ultimately threw for 295 yards and four touchdowns, completing 13 of his 22 passes with a single interception. Star wide receiver Chris Olave proved why he is a future first-round NFL Draft pick with 118 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions, while freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson showcased his five-star credentials with an incredible 70-yard catch-and-run touchdown to break open the game in the second half.
Running back Miyan Williams registered 125 yards on nine carries with a 71-yard breakaway touchdown serving as the first score of the game. Not to be left out, Garrett Wilson had a tremendous 56-yard touchdown reception as part of his 80 yards receiving on the evening.
Minnesota had Ohio State on upset alert through the first 30 minutes thanks in large part to a tremendous effort from star RB Mohamed Ibrahim. Unfortunately, a lower leg injury took Ibrahim out of the game and the wind out of the Golden Gophers' sails. He left in a boot with 163 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries, and Minnesota was unable to find significant offense without him in the game as QB Tanner Morgan completed just 14 of 25 passes for 206 yards with a touchdown and fumble on a sack that was returned for a touchdown by Ohio State's defense.
The victory marked the Buckeyes' 22nd consecutive win in a season opener, the longest active streak in the nation and third-longest all-time.
Here are the biggest takeaways from an interesting opener for both teams.
1. C.J. Stroud isn't Justin Fields, and that's fine
In recent years, we've seen so many talented quarterbacks putting up spectacular numbers at the college level that we almost take them for granted. It used to be freshman quarterbacks were the last thing you wanted to turn to, but these days they're better prepared than ever, and they're playing in friendly offenses.
All that said, we can't overlook that both Fields and Clemson's Trevor Lawrence were generational talents coming out of high school. They just happened to be in the same recruiting class. Stroud is extremely talented, but he isn't where Fields was at the same age, so we shouldn't put those expectations on him.
Thursday night, we saw a kid making his first collegiate start on the road in front of a hostile crowd, and it showed early. He looked nervous, and it felt like he was trying to score a touchdown on every throw. Then the second half started, and Stroud appeared calmer and more trusting of the incredible weapons at his disposal. He finished the night with nearly 300 yards and four scores, but a lot of those yards came after the catch on long touchdowns by Olave and Henderson.
When you have guys capable of scoring from anywhere with the ball in their hands, your job is just to get the ball in their hands. Look at how well it worked out for Mac Jones at Alabama last season. There's no reason why it can't be the same story for Stroud.
2. Outstanding talent wins out
Ohio State wasn't great on Thursday night, yet it still scored 45 points and won by two touchdowns. That's what happens when you have the collection of playmaking talent that the Buckeyes do. Most teams don't have one Wilson or Olave at the receiver position, let alone both. As Henderson showed when he took a simple screen pass 71 yards to the house in the second half, not many people can move as quickly as he does.
Zach Harrison and Haskell Garrett are rare freaks of nature who happen to play on the same defensive line and work together for strip-sacks and fumble returns. When you have game-changing talent all over the field, it only takes one play to change a game. Ohio State did that numerous times Thursday night, and no matter how well Minnesota played, that talent made the Gophers' effort futile.
3. P.J. Fleck's aggressive decision-making paid off
Minnesota didn't win the game, but Fleck's decision to go for it on fourth-and-1 deep in his territory in the first half is precisely the kind of decision-making more coaches need to make in games like this against elite opponents. Minnesota will not beat Ohio State by playing conservatively and hoping to milk the clock and win the field position battle.
You have to attack. You have to be aggressive. It's not going to result in a win more times than not, but your chances of succeeding are far greater when you take those "risks."In fact, Fleck's fourth-down decisions only made me more frustrated in the fourth quarter when the Gophers offense was moving at a glacial pace despite being down two touchdowns.
4. Losing Mohamed Ibrahim would be devastating
It's just awful. The Gophers were already without top receiver Chris Autman-Bell, but Ibrahim is the offense's focal point. He's the guy it's all built around. He led the nation in rush attempts per game last season with 28.7 and was rushing the ball for the 30th time on Thursday night when he went down with a leg injury.
Minnesota has other backs on the roster who can help fill his shoes, but I'm skeptical they're as complete a player as Ibrahim. With a healthy Ibrahim, this Minnesota team looked like a squad that could surprise people again in the Big Ten West. Without him? I don't think the season is lost or anything, but it's going to be tough sledding without the workhorse.