Coming off of their final bye week of the 2014 season, Ohio State looks to start off their final stretch of games with a win against the other new member of the Big Ten. The Scarlet Knights are coming to Columbus to face Ohio State for the first time in school history. After traveling to College Park and thrashing Maryland, Ohio State will try and carry that momentum from two weeks ago into Saturday's game.
Rutgers is off to a fast start in 2014, with a 5-1 record, with their only loss coming to Penn State, where they lost 13-10. The Scarlet Knights' season gets much tougher from here on, however, as they have to face Ohio State in Columbus, at Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana, at Michigan State, and at Maryland, so there's still plenty of work left to be done before Rutgers can call their season a success.
We give you five things to look for on Saturday afternoon, when Ohio State and Rutgers meet for the first time:
Another big test for the secondary
Things have started to improve for the Ohio State defense, and the secondary in particular. After a horrendous 2013 season, the secondary started off a bit shaky against Virginia Tech and Cincinnati but many of their mistakes have been fixed from a unit that is still fairly young. Facing off against Maryland's supremely talented wide receiver Stefon Diggs, the Buckeyes were effectively able to take Diggs out of the Terrapins' gameplan from the start. Diggs would finish the day with 7 receptions for 57 yards and a touchdown that came much later in the fourth quarter, when the game was already well in hand.
Now Ohio State will be tasked with stopping Rutgers quarterback Gary Nova, who has thrown for 1,601 yards and 13 touchdowns this season. Nova was picked off five times against Penn State earlier this season in the Scarlet Knights' only loss so far, but bounced back in a big way. Nova didn't have one interception against Michigan and also threw for a career-high 404 yards and three touchdowns. His passer rating of 170.9 is second in the Big Ten. It will be up to the secondary to prove that they're on their way to becoming a solid defensive unit once again.
Barrett leading the charge
Ohio State redshirt freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett has been simply phenomenal since the Buckeyes dropped the game at home to Virginia Tech. In his first two games, Barrett had a completion mark of 47.7 percent and a 3-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. For his last three games, Barrett has rocketed up to a 75.3 percent completion rating and has 14 touchdowns to only one interception.
Perhaps the key to Barrett's success has been the shorter passes dialed up for the offense. Since the start of that three-game mark, his average pass distance is five yards shorter than in the first two games, meaning less deep balls are being forced. This could also explain the recent decision by the coaching staff to start Michael Thomas over Devin Smith, considering Smith is widely viewed as a deep threat only.
Running backs face formidable defense
Don't sleep on the Scarlet Knights' rush defense. While overall Rutgers is allowing 21.7 points per game (compared to Ohio State's 20.8), the rush defense actually ranks one spot ahead of the Buckeyes. With the 44th best rush defense, Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Rod Smith, and Curtis Samuel will have to step up on Saturday for the Buckeyes to control the momentum of the game and help keep the offense running smoothly for Barrett.
Only one other team has been ranked higher than the Scarlet Knights with this rush defense (so far this season), and that would belong to Virginia Tech, who ranks 36th in the country. The Hokies held Ohio State to just 108 yards rushing for the game, forcing coach Meyer and the staff to throw the ball for much of the night.
Setting the standard
As mentioned above, Rutgers is the other team to join the Big Ten this season. While this won't be their first Big Ten game of the season, it's still a marquee matchup for the Scarlet Knights. The Buckeyes have essentially been top dog in the Big Ten (credit to Michigan State for their recent success) for the past decade and Rutgers surely has had this game marked on their calendar since their joining the Big Ten.
While they may be an underdog, they aren't running from that identity. Rutgers linebacker Kevin Snyder even gave this quote on what it means to the team to have a chance to beat Ohio State: "Winning -- especially against a team like Ohio State -- would go a long way to changing the perception, because right now I don't think they have much respect for us. I don't think their fan base does, either."
Fear the ranked teams...and Urban Meyer
It's been a rough stretch for the Scarlet Knights when it comes to playing teams ranked in the Top 25. While Rutgers has won three consecutive games this season, they have dropped the last six contests against Top 25 opponents and conveniently play another with Ohio State. To make things even harder, it's at the 'Shoe, which, despite the loss to Virginia Tech, is still an incredibly difficult place to win or pull off an upset. Plus, it's homecoming.
Here's another fun fact for Saturday's game: Ohio State hasn't lost a Big Ten matchup under Meyer during the regular season, going 17-0 since the start of 2012 while outscoring opponents by an average of 17.9 points. That is three wins shy of the Big Ten record streak. In other words, the Scarlet Knights are going to have to rely on a little bit of luck if they want to upend the Buckeyes.