MINNEAPOLIS — He’s the latest star middle linebacker for Ohio State, the reigning Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner as the nation’s best defensive player, and the son of a former professional wrestler.
James Laurinaitis has barely begun his junior season, and he’s already given opposing coaches their share of nightmares. Minnesota’s Tim Brewster? He acknowledged only pleasant thoughts.
“To be quite honest with you, I’ve daydreamed about this kid a little bit,” Brewster said this week.
Well, he’s new. Just give him a year. And the Gophers coach did explain himself, after all.
“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t daydream about him wearing maroon and gold,” Brewster said.
Laurinaitis learned the game in high school in Wayzata, a suburb 15 miles west of the Minnesota campus. The Gophers heavily recruited him when Glen Mason was the coach, but Laurinaitis was set on playing for the Buckeyes — partly because of an Andy Katzenmoyer jersey his father, Joe, bought for him when he was young. (The elder Laurinaitis wrestled as “Animal” in the “Legion of Doom” tag team.)
As the only Minnesotan on Ohio State’s roster, Laurinaitis is exactly the type of talent that Brewster is determined to keep from crossing state lines in the future.
“Am I confident? Come on. … They’re hearing our message. They’re feeling our message,” Brewster said. “Without question, I think the best players in the state of Minnesota want to stay at home and represent you, the people in this state, instead of going and representing another state.”
The new on-campus stadium scheduled to open in 2009 will help Brewster’s mission, but this season’s performance probably won’t. The Gophers (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) already have lost to Bowling Green and Florida Atlantic, opponents that sure don’t match up to the Buckeyes.
With Laurinaitis leading the defense, they’ve allowed an average of 177 yards per game to rank second in the NCAA’s top tier in that category. His 29 tackles, three sacks and two interceptions are team bests for Ohio State (4-0, 1-0).
Minnesota receiver Eric Decker caught a couple of balls across the middle in last year’s 44-0 loss in Columbus. He didn’t remember getting hit by the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Laurinaitis.
“But he was there. He’s there on every play,” Decker said.
Brewster called Laurinaitis the “complete-package football player” while expressing that jealousy.
“The thing I like most about him is it looks like he loves to play the game,” Brewster said. “He plays with tremendous passion, energy, excitement — and the other guys feed off him.”
That was affirmed when Laurinaitis was named a co-captain before the season.
“It’s a tremendous honor. You look at the fraternity of brothers that you’re included with. It’s unbelievable. It’s kind of breathtaking,” he said last month.
Breathtaking would be a Gophers victory. They’ve turned the ball over 16 times and are giving up an average of 408 passing yards per game, the most in the country.
Plus, they’ve never beaten the Buckeyes at the Metrodome in 10 meetings since they moved there in 1982 though they’ve won twice at Ohio Stadium since then. This is their last chance, too, because they don’t play in Minnesota again until 2010 in TCF Bank Stadium. Michigan is the only other conference foe the Gophers have never beaten in the Dome.
“We gear up for any team, whether it’s Michigan or someone else,” Ohio State tailback Maurice Wells said. “We’re going to compete and play our hardest and try to exploit some of their miscues on defense.”
That’s what Brewster is hoping to end this week. One advantage the Gophers have is the absence of any pressure to win.
“Winning breeds winning. We’re going to get a big win here, and you know what’s going to happen: We’re going to take care of the football, and then all of a sudden the football gods are going to start being nice to us,” Brewster said. “All those tipped balls, a guy running down the field dropping a ball — all of a sudden we’re going to hold onto the ball. We’re going to catch some of those tipped balls. And good things are going to happen to us, because we’re working extremely hard and we’re doing the things necessary to win.”
AP Sportswriter Rusty Miller in Columbus contributed to this report.
NO. 8 OHIO STATE AT MINNESOTA
WHAT: The Buckeyes travel to Minneapolis to face the Golden Gophers in their second Big Ten game of the season.
TIME: 8 o’clock
TV/RADIO: ESPN2 will televise the game nationally with Mark Jones handling
play-by-play and Bob Davie performing the analysis. Stacey Dales will be the sideline reporter. On radio, the game will be found on WEOL 930-AM and WKNR 850-AM.
RECORDS: OSU is 4-0 overall and 1-0 in the Big Ten; Minnesota is 1-3 and 0-1.
COACHES: Jim Tressel is 66-14 (.825) in his seventh season at Ohio State and 201-71-2 (.737) in his 22nd year as a head coach. Tim Brewster is 1-3 (.250) in his first year at Minnesota and in his career as a head coach.
SERIES: OSU leads 39-7 all-time against Minnesota and won 44-0 last season in Columbus.
THE SKINNY: The Buckeyes defeated Northwestern 58-7 last Saturday, giving Tressel his 201st career win. It also was Ohio State’s 22nd consecutive regular-season win, setting a school record. Tressel also won his sixth Big Ten opener. The Buckeyes scored four first-quarter touchdowns against the Wildcats, the first time they have accomplished that feat since a 56-35 win over Iowa in 2005. Todd Boeckman threw two touchdown passes to Brian Robiske, and Chris Wells ran
3 yards for a third first-quarter touchdown. Vernon Gholston returned a fumble 25 yards for the final first-quarter score. The Buckeyes added two touchdowns and a field goal in the second quarter for a 45-0 halftime lead. Ray Small caught a
48-yard TD pass from Boeckman in the third quarter before Maurice Wells closed out the scoring with a 1-yard TD run with 2:08 left in the third. Northwestern finished with 0 yards rushing as its lone touchdown came on Stephen Simmons’
99-yard return of the second-half kickoff.