P.J. Fleck pondered the question carefully Monday morning, his economy of words speaking volumes.
The Gophers football coach was asked about two plays from Thursday's season opener against Ohio State in which Minnesota offensive players took hits from Buckeyes defenders that appeared to fall under the targeting umbrella but eventually were not called as such.
"I'm all for player safety — opponents, my team — I'm for player safety," Fleck said.
Fleck added that he sent video clips of the two plays as part of a weekly package of officiating questions he forwards to the Big Ten office. He was waiting for a response from the conference.
The first of the calls in question came on Minnesota's first possession. Quarterback Tanner Morgan scrambled for a 5-yard gain to the Ohio State 46 and was hit by Buckeyes linebacker Teradja Mitchell, who led with his helmet and hit Morgan in the back. Officials originally called targeting, but the ruling was reversed on video review. Had it been ruled targeting, the Gophers would have had the ball at Ohio State's 31-yard line and the Buckeyes would have been without their best linebacker for the remainder of the game.
The second happened with Ohio State leading 45-31 on what turned out to be the Gophers' final possession. Morgan found receiver Michael Brown-Stephens for a 20-yard gain to the Buckeyes 41, and Ohio State safety Lathan Ransom hit Brown-Stephens in the head with his helmet. The play was reviewed to see whether Brown-Stephens fumbled — he did, and Ohio State recovered — but targeting was not added to the review process, and Fleck shared his displeasure with the referee. Had it been ruled targeting, the Gophers would have had the ball at the Ohio State 26 with 3:59 left.
"All I can do is send the clips in," Fleck said Monday.
Howden on track to play
Safety Jordan Howden left Thursday's game because of an undisclosed injury in the second quarter, but Fleck said he's expected back for Saturday's home game against Miami (Ohio). "He's good," Fleck said. "He'll be fine."
With Howden out, the Buckeyes found matchups that their wide receivers exploited, particularly Chris Olave, who had three catches for 110 yards, including TDs of 38 and 61 yards in the second half after one grab for 7 yards in the first half.
"There are some personnel matchups that we got into when we lost Howden," Fleck said. "… They did a good job of exposing it."
Wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who warmed up for the opener but didn't play because of a lower leg injury suffered Aug. 12, is progressing toward returning to the lineup, possibly on Saturday. "We're going to get Chris back here hopefully really quickly, and then you can see a pretty good wide receiving corps," Fleck said.