Just three weeks ago -- a lifetime in college football, really -- Ohio State faced a near-collapse against the Indiana Hoosiers. The Buckeyes really only looked like the better team when the ball was in Ezekiel Elliott's hands. Urban Meyer's squad got chewed up on the ground by what amounted to a host of backups, and the narrow escape had fans wondering when, not if, the other shoe was going to drop.
Fast-forward to last Saturday. Ohio State's next opponent, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, took on the Hoosiers, and actually won a 55-52 shootout a week after almost pulling a massive upset over Michigan State. Both of those results should give the Buckeyes pause heading into the weekend. It's not that Rutgers has a decent chance of winning on Saturday, because they don't, with the way the Buckeyes have played since the IU game, but the Scarlet Knights' biggest strength plays into what has lately looked like a big weakness for Ohio State.
I speak, of course, of the explosive play. And while the Buckeyes haven't been rock-solid against big runs -- they're currently 62nd in the country at defending explosive rushing plays, per Bill C. -- they've been somehow more abysmal against the home run pass. That's not great news, given that Rutgers boasts one of the country's best receivers in Leonte Carroo. Carroo is banged up and officially listed as questionable for Saturday's game, but so was Saquon Barkley at this point last week, and we saw how that went for the Buckeyes. If Carroo does play, the man with the biggest challenge for Ohio State will be CB Eli Apple.
Year: Redshirt sophomore
Weight: 200 lbs
Current Stat Line: 15 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 interception, 5 pass breakups
Apple, the Buckeyes' No. 1 corner, has had some shaky stretches of play this season. A few uncharacteristic missed tackles and untimely penalties have perhaps made things look worse than they are, but regardless, the Ohio State secondary, so unstoppable in the season's early weeks, will need him to return to full form against the Scarlet Knights. (This is a very minor complaint, as Apple and Gareon Conley have combined to allow just 14 catches on 48 targets this season.)
The game situation
Assuming that Carroo does suit up for Rutgers, Apple (and his safety help) will have their work cut out for them. Carroo has put up ridiculous numbers this season, none moreso than this: he's averaging a touchdown for every 2.3 receptions. That's bonkers. At 6'1, 200 lbs, he's an exact size matchup for Apple, but he can stretch the field vertically like few receivers in college football, and if up-and-down QB Chris Laviano can put the ball anywhere near him, there's a good chance he'll go up and get it.
Carroo isn't Rutgers' only threat through the air, either. Andre Patton gets targeted almost as much as Carroo, and has put together a tidy average on the season. He caught six passes for 89 yards against Indiana, including a 38-yarder. Having Carroo to take up the defense's attention certainly doesn't hurt him, so his performance might be diminished if his teammate can't suit up, but he's one to watch out for either way.
What to watch for
You may recall a few paragraphs ago, in which it was mentioned that Ohio State has struggled at times to stop big rushing plays against inferior opponents this season. Rutgers' running backs have shown some flash this year, too, with Josh Hicks and Robert Martin both averaging over five yards per carry. Martin in particular impressed against Indiana, carrying 17 times for 124 yards and 3 TDs.
Joshua Perry, who left the Penn State game with a sprained ankle, is probable to return on Saturday. That's excellent news. Perry -- labeled as the defensive difference-maker in this column just a week ago! -- has missed just one tackle all season. His replacements, Dante Booker and Cam Williams, combined to miss three in less than one full game. Shoring up the run defense will go a long way towards being able to commit more defenders to shutting down playmakers like Carroo.
With J.T. Barrett as Ohio State's full-time QB, it looks like the Buckeyes are looking to return to the offensive identity that served them so well during last year's regular season. That should be cause for panic among the rest of the Big Ten's defenses. Ezekiel Elliott is riding a 12-game streak of 100-yard games, Braxton Miller is finally involved in a meaningful capacity, and Michael Thomas looks as unguardable as ever.
That said, if Leonte Carroo plays, the Scarlet Knights are going to put points on the board. After this week, the Buckeye defense gets a bye week to regroup and then a set of Minnesota tackling dummies to practice on, so don't worry too much if they don't have it all figured out against a surprisingly feisty offense like this one. It won't be close, but Rutgers is going to hang around in the first half. Final score should be in the 51-28 range.