COLUMBUS, Ohio – The Gophers football team played both Michigan and Ohio State this season, leaving coach P.J. Fleck as a good person to ask about which Big Ten East Division power is better.
"What color Ferrari would you like, a red one or a white one?" Fleck responded.
Saturday in front of 104,019 at Ohio Stadium, that red Ferrari — the second-ranked Buckeyes — raced past the Gophers 37-3 behind a dominant second half, setting up next week's showdown with the white Ferrari, No. 3 Michigan, which beat Minnesota 52-10 on Oct. 7.
For the Gophers, Saturday's loss wasn't surprising — they were 27½ -point underdogs — but still showed that it's tough to stay in a race when you have a low-horsepower vehicle that's leaking oil and struggling to get to the finish line.
"We've got to be way better," said Fleck, whose team lost its third consecutive game. "We didn't make enough plays, which has kind of been the story of the year. We haven't made enough plays to win football games."
For one half, though, the Gophers hung around with Ohio State, never threatening to score but playing well enough on defense and special teams that the Buckeyes led by only 13 points.
That changed in a hurry in the second half when the Buckeyes scored two touchdowns in the first 1:07 of the third quarter.
TreVeyon Henderson ran 75 yards for a touchdown on the first play of the second half, and after a strip sack of Gophers quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, Ohio State QB Kyle McCord found Marvin Harrison Jr. on a 4-yard slant for a TD and 27-0 lead before fans had settled into their seats.
"If they get you off-schedule, they've got you," Fleck said. "And if you give them turnovers, that just doubles, triples, quadruples the issue."
The Gophers fell to 5-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten heading into next week's season finale against Wisconsin at Huntington Bank Stadium. At stake will be Paul Bunyan's Axe, and the Gophers need to retain it to secure a sixth win and bowl eligibility.
Ohio State (11-0, 8-0) tuned up for The Game, in which the Big Ten East Division title will be on the line and College Football Playoff aspirations will be in play. Henderson rushed 15 times for 146 yards and two TDs. McCord completed 20 of 30 passes for 212 yards and two TDs. And Ohio State's defense didn't let the Gophers penetrate the Buckeyes 40-yard line until 10 minutes remained in the game.
Kaliakmanis completed 11 of 19 passes for 89 yards but lost a fumble and threw an interception that led to 10 Ohio State points. Jordan Nubin led the Gophers with 19 rushes for 49 yards, carrying most of the load after Zach Evans left the game for good in the first quarter because of an injury.
"They were just really good," Kaliakmanis said of the Buckeyes.
Minnesota's only points came on Dragan Kesich's 54-yard field goal with 6:43 remaining.
The Buckeyes had a textbook start, driving 85 yards in eight plays and taking a 7-0 lead on Henderson's 9-yard TD run.
"They came out and hit us in the mouth," Gophers defensive end Danny Striggow said.
Minnesota's defense settled down, holding Ohio State to field goals of 47 and 26 yards by Jayden Fielding in the second quarter.
Twice in the first half, the Gophers moved into Ohio State territory and Fleck had key fourth-down decisions.
With the Gophers trailing 7-0 in the first quarter and facing fourth-and-5 from the Buckeyes' 40, Fleck had Mark Crawford punt. Down 10-0 in the second quarter, Fleck opted to punt on fourth-and-5 from the Ohio State 42. Both times, the Buckeyes started from inside their 15.
He cited the distance needed and the chance of pinning Ohio State in its own end as reasons to play it safe.
"If it's fourth-and-2, fourth-and-1, I'm all in on that," Fleck said. "If it's fourth-and-5, why not pin them down. After the first drive, our defense was playing better. You make them go 90-some yards. … If you don't get it and they go down and score, the game's over."
Down 13-0 at halftime, the Gophers were encouraged.
"We were feeling good," Striggow said. "You never count yourself out of a game."
Then came those two quick touchdowns that ignited a 24-point second half by the red Ferrari that the Gophers couldn't keep pace with.
"It's been a really, really hard second half of the year," Fleck said. "… A lot of these things are going to get better over time. You just want the time to be now."