The 22nd-ranked Buckeyes slipped past No. 24 Minnesota 20-17 Saturday when the Golden Gophers faltered in the fourth quarter against a ranked team at the Metrodome for the second straight time.
Dan Stultz kicked a 40-yard field goal with 1:15 left and Matt Wilhelm recovered Tyrone Carter's fumble on the ensuing kickoff as the Buckeyes (5-3, 2-2) avoided their first 1-3 Big Ten start since 1988 and beat the Gophers for the 16th straight time.
Jerry Westbrooks caused the fumble that secured Ohio State's improbable victory over the Gophers (5-2, 2-2), who dominated the game statistically until failing to gain a first down in three fourth-quarter possessions.
A victory over the Buckeyes also would have given Minnesota its first winning season in nine years and made them bowl eligible for the first time in a dozen seasons.
Instead, the Buckeyes may have salvaged their season. With trips left to Michigan and Michigan State, the Buckeyes were in danger of posting their first losing season since 1988, John Cooper's first year as coach.
"You're looking at a happy football coach," Cooper said. "Minnesota has a great football team. They'll win enough games to go to a bowl game. But we did not want them to beat us. We're fighting for our lives."
Stultz and Michael Wiley both snapped out of slumps.
"This is really bigger than what people think," said Wiley, who ran for 118 yards and two touchdowns and threw a 28-yard pass that set up a field goal for the Buckeyes. "Now, hopefully, we can get rolling and finish the season great. Had we lost, who knows where we would turn?"
Steve Bellisari, benced for four second-half series, returned at quarterback and took a halfback pass from Wiley 28 yards to the Minnesota 24, setting up Stultz' 43-yard field goal that tied it at 17 with just over six minutes remaining.
The Gophers went three-and-out again, and the Buckeyes went to work dousing Minnesota's dreams of joining the Big Ten's upper echelon.
"I knew I was going to make it before I went out there," Stultz said after his first game-winning field goal in college or high school.
Then Carter, the Gophers' best player, fumbled.
"Does anybody in the country play harder than that guy," his coach, Glen Mason, said. "And you think I'm going to sit here and be critical of that guy fumbling?"
"I mean, I don't like fumbles, but if I've got the game on the line and a chance to win, is there a guy that I'm going to want with his hands on the ball more than Tyrone Carter? He'd die for the University of Minnesota."
But Carter ducked reporters afterward.
Mason had plenty of other players to blame.
"The real story is we left our defense on the field too long," he said. "When it came down to the end when we really needed them to play, they were spent."
Wiley, who gained just 37 yards on his first 11 runs, darted up the middle for a 44-yard touchdown that gave Ohio State a 14-10 lead in the third quarter following a switch from Bellisari to Austin Moherman.
But Karon Riley stripped the ball from Monherman on the next series, and Astein Osei recovered. The Gophers then drove 52 yards for Thomas Hamner's 7-yard TD run that put Minnesota ahead 17-14.
The Gophers led just 10-7 at halftime despite dominating the game in almost every phase, including a 187-46 edge in total yards, 114-12 in rushing yards and 10-2 in first downs.
Ohio State needed to go just five yards for a 7-0 lead after cornerback Nate Clements intercepted Billy Cockerham's second pass and returned it 36 yards, setting up Wiley's 3-yard TD run.
Cockerham's 9-yard keeper tied it at 7, and Dan Nystrom's 30-yard field goal made it 10-7.
"It is frustrating," Riley said of the Gophers' second straight three-point conference loss at the Metrodome. "It's like you keep going to the store and the stuff you want is never there."
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