Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel began his segment at the weekly Big Ten teleconference with a statement about OSU's victory over Indiana and the upcoming game at Minnesota.
"Every time you go on the road in the Big Ten, it's a heck of a challenge and a heck of a test," Tressel said. "We just came back being from in Indiana and had a tough ball game over there -- well into the third and fourth quarter it was tight. We were fortunate enough to score a little bit late in the game. Every time you go on the road, it's a tough one. We're going to a tough place up at Minnesota, a top 25 football team. I think it's our fifth or so top 25 football team we've played this year, and none of them I've seen run the football like Minnesota, and that's going to be a great challenge and we're looking forward to it."
The Buckeyes will be facing the top-ranked rushing offense in the country this Saturday when they square off against the Gophers. Tressel was asked if too much of a focus on Minnesota's rushing attack might result in the Buckeyes getting burned with the pass, and he responded by saying that the Buckeyes will need to be wary of both.
"I think all of us in the Big Ten and really around the country have a variety of ways that we can defend," Tressel said. "We all have defenses that we can load the box up, and then we're kind of leaving our corners and some of our DBs on an island and see how they do. Then we have other ways that we can deploy where we can give the people on the back end a little more help and be a little more vulnerable to the run. I think you have to be able to do both and do it at different times and not be able to have a team say 'We know they're always going to do this or always going to do that,' because Minnesota does a nice job with their passing game. It's a great compliment to their run game.
"You know you're going to have to attempt to stop their run to keep them in check. There's no doubt about it. Them knowing that, they have designed their pass game with that in mind, and they do it efficiently. It's not huge numbers, but when you spend as many of your plays running the ball as they do, you're not going to have huge pass numbers. But you do it very effectively, I think."
One of Minnesota's lesser-known weapons is running back Gary Russell, who has 644 yards on 85 carries and 10 touchdowns while splitting time with starter Laurence Maroney. Tressel was asked how hard Ohio State recruited Russell, who played his high school ball at Columbus Walnut Ridge.
"It's interesting," Tressel said. "There are 89 players on Big Ten rosters from the state of Ohio, not counting the Ohio State players. We've got I suppose 60 or 70, maybe more. But one thing's for sure is we've got good football here. We've got excellent high school football coaches and training. Culturally, our people love the game.
"In terms of guys like Gary Russell, absolutely we knew of him and were on to him and the whole thing. He's done a great job there. We take a little bit of pride in the Ohio guys elsewhere except for when we play them. That's a little difficult. But we take a lot of pride in the kind of football they play in our state. We wish we could have every one of those 89, but that's not the way it works."
On Ohio State's side, the Buckeyes have a developing go-to guy at running back in Antonio Pittman after having struggled at running back the past two seasons. Tressel was asked if there were concerns about the running game coming into this week's game.
"We always want our rushing attack to improve," Tressel said. "I think we've made improvement. Antonio, I think, has turned into a good number one back. I think he's a darn good one. Our number two rusher right now is our quarterback Troy Smith. I think I would probably prefer to have another running back be the number two guy from a results standpoint. It was good to see Maurice Wells get in (against Indiana) and get 50 yards on about 8 or 9 or 10 carries. My concern probably would be more on the number two spot than the number one."
Wide receiver Ted Ginn had a breakout game against Indiana as he was named special teams player of the week by the Big Ten. Tressel talked about what makes Ginn tough as a receiver and a return man.
"Teddy's a great kid," Tressel said. "He's a great competitor. This is his first year as a full-time starter, and obviously also keeping his return duties as well, and he's doing a nice job blocking as well as we think a very good receiver. He's got 20-some catches I guess, and he's a threat out there every time you get him the football. Then in the return game, he's a guy that there might be three returns where he just looks average, and then the fourth one, there he goes. He's had a couple called back; he had one punt for a touchdown called back, one kickoff for a touchdown called back and a couple other long returns called back. We've got to eliminate penalties and Ted Ginn will look even better than he is."
"It's true that a lot of people know Bobby with his brothers and so forth because one plays at Cincinnati and what not, but A.J. had a brother too who played at Ohio University and was an excellent player and was a couple years ahead of A.J," Tressel said. "A.J. comes from a tough football program in Centerville, Ohio. That's the same place that Kirk Herbstreit played and Mike Nugent, just an outstanding program. If you're going to be a good player in that program, you're going to have to be tough. Having guys like A.J. and Bobby with their background and with their passion and with their habits and their enjoyment of the game, we're certainly very fortunate."
Minnesota head coach Glen Mason was the last coach on the teleconference, and he discussed his team's bye week as well as the upcoming opponent.
"We had a bye week last week, the first time in a couple years that we've had one, so it was kind of an unusual deal around here," Mason said. "We tried to get a couple things accomplished, which we did, or hope we did. This week, we're preparing for Ohio State. They're a great football team, and I don't say that loosely. (They're) very talented; every place you look, there's talent -- offense, defense, kicking game -- good as anybody in the country.
"I watched like probably most of the country when they played Texas earlier in the year, and now Texas is No. 1 in the BCS poll, and Ohio State people and a lot of Big Ten people thought Ohio State should have won the football game. It'll be a real challenge for us, but that's what you get excited about -- challenges. So we're looking forward to this week."
Mason was asked what his main concerns were with Ohio State's defense, and his answer was a familiar one -- the linebackers.
"You don't get to be the No. 1 rush defense in the country and No. 3 overall unless you're pretty darn good in all areas because you're going to see a variety of attacks, and if you're weak in an area, the offense can dictate where it's going," Mason said. "There's one thing that stands out is those three linebackers. We've got some good linebackers in this league and we've had some good linebackers in this league, but I can honestly say I can't ever remember facing three linebackers to these guys' equal. They're awful good. They're big, strong, physical and they've got great savvy. Good football players."
Mason also briefly discussed the Ohio State defensive line.
"They're big and strong," Mason said. "If the front four wasn't so good, you'd figure a way that you could probably handle the linebackers, but the first line of defense, they're stout. I'm impressed. They're very well coached. They're tough kids that play hard and they let those linebackers clean up the rest."
Minnesota is known for having a good percentage of their players from Ohio, including starting quarterback and Cincinnati McNicholas product Bryan Cupito, who will be back this week at quarterback after sitting out due to injury against Wisconsin. Mason was asked what he saw in Cupito coming out of high school that made the Gophers decide to recruit him.
"I just liked the way that he operated out of a shotgun offense but he was a very, very accurate passer," Mason said. "I think that's typically what we need in our attack is someone who is people overplay the run, we can exploit the pass. We need to do that a little bit better than we have been doing, but that's our thought process. Bryan was playing well and then he was injured against Michigan in the latter part of that game. We laid him out a week, but he's back now. He's practicing and looks good."
Another Ohio product is wide receiver Jared Ellerson, who has had a solid career for the Golden Gophers.
"Jared's played a lot of football around here," Mason said. "He came to us from Copley High School and really three years ago had I think a tremendous season. He's been a steady performer for us. He's been a little banged up; no major injuries, but we haven't been able to seem to get him 100 percent healthy for a long period of time. But he's a very steady performer for us. As most people know, receivers here are not only called on to catch the ball but are very prominent in our blocking and run game."
One more Ohio player who will be getting plenty of focus is running back Gary Russell. Mason was asked about Russell's style and how it compliments starter Laurence Maroney.
"Gary Russell is an awfully good running back," Mason said. "I got asked the question all the time to compare Marion Barber III and Maroney last year, and I get asked the same questions now. They're all different, but Gary runs with a very low center of gravity. He's a very strong guy. A number of times you see people try to take him down and he moves the pile. And he has deceiving speed, which I think was very evident in his run against Michigan at the end of the game."
Maroney is one of the favorites for Big Ten offensive player of the year as he currently has 1,133 yards and 8 touchdowns on 208 carries. Maroney's number of carries is one of the highest in America, and Mason was asked how Maroney is able to carry such a big load.
"In this league, you better be awful tough, I can tell you that," Mason said. "I don't think there's anything tougher in football than when you get tackled. I think all you have to do is ask any defensive player what's the worst and they say when you have to be the ball carrier in defensive practice when you're the guy getting tackled. But you better be pretty durable and I guess you better know when to pour it on. You better know when to duck because you'll take a beating."
A criticism of Minnesota in the past has been their inability to win the games against the upper echelon teams of the Big Ten, but this year's victory at Michigan silenced some critics. Penn State head coach Joe Paterno said this year's team is the best Minnesota team he's seen, but Mason says that the main difference has been experience.
"I heard Coach Paterno say that," Mason said. "I really don't give it much thought year to year to year. The only difference I see, we've been an awfully young football team the last couple of years with really just a handful of seniors. This year, we've got more seniors, more seniors playing, especially on the offensive side of the football -- some guys that have played a lot of football. I think that really helps."