In a season mostly filled with angst after each victory, Ohio State fans had plenty to celebrate last weekend after watching the Buckeyes thrash Penn State, 38-10. While the offense started slow (again), the defense weathered the early storm, and combined with a fantastic special teams unit, gave Ohio State one of the best field position advantages in a game this year to date.
Eventually, the offense took advantage, behind another special performance from Ezekiel Elliott, and the re-emergence of JT Barrett. It was the most playing time he's seen all season, rushing for over 100 yards and two touchdowns to go along with a passing touchdown. With Barrett at the helm, Ohio State had its most consistent offensive performance of the year against a very good defense.
Unsurprisingly, Barrett was named the starting quarterback this week by Urban Meyer, ending the discussion, for now. Regardless of what happens the rest of the season, It's a good bet that Rutgers won't provide us another platform to debate Cardale vs. JT.
Matt Brown did a great job outlining the wild season Rutgers is having, and how it relates to Head Coach Kyle Flood's job status and despite all the noise, the Scarlet Knights stand at 3-3. Granted, those three wins are Norfolk State, Kansas and last week's wild comeback against Indiana; but hey, .500 is .500, right?
Our friends at The Solid Verbal have often described Rutgers as 'New York's one true team,' and who are we to disagree? When the Empire State Building is lit up in your school's colors to celebra-
Oh, the other scarlet.
It's Ohio State versus Rutgers: The Big Ten matchup you dreamed about as a kid! Here are five things to watch for Saturday night:
I choose you
Choosing is hard. Whether it's which Pokemon you start with, your favorite Michigan loss, or which luxury vehicle you want to drive on a given day, picking between great options is a tough task.
Urban Meyer's decision to start JT Barrett over Cardale Jones qualifies, and a loud portion of the Buckeye faithful have finally gotten their wish in Barrett winning the job. (Hopefully--for everyone's sake-- we've reached the conclusion of the Ohio State quarterback derby)
With Barrett in the game, it's obvious that we'll see more run read concepts. He's a much better runner than Jones, and his skillset paid dividends the last few weeks in the redzone. It also frees things up for Elliott. In theory, defenses can't solely focus on Elliott with Barrett in, and when they do, Barrett will remind them of what he did against Penn State:
Barrett's contribution to the run game is easy enough to see, but how he fits into the passing offense is the bigger question.
In limited action, his erratic play has led to two interceptions in only 44 attempts. He admits to "forcing it" earlier in the season, something which rarely happened in 2014.
Whether it's confidence or being more at ease with the offense, Barrett has been great in a small sample the last two weeks, completing all six of his passes for 56 yards and two touchdowns. Rutgers' troubles in pass defense should mean another step forward for the sophomore come Saturday night.
While Ohio State will likely replicate it's usual success on the ground, the real benefactors may be the wide receivers. Rutgers comes into Saturday with one of the worst passing defenses in the country, exacerbated by their inability to corral opponents on standard downs:
|Rutgers isn't very good on standard downs dot table||Rank|
|Standard Downs S&P+||128|
|Standard Downs Success Rate||122|
|Standard Downs IsoPPP||108|
|Standard Downs Run Rate||122|
Ohio State generally runs on standard downs, but those numbers indicate there are yards to be had passing on 1st down, and other manageable situations. Adding to the mismatch, S&P+ ranks the Scarlet Knights as the second-worst 1st down defense in the country, playing right into a Buckeye offensive strength (9th in Offensive S&P+).
The Buckeye passing game has been a mystery all season, looking both explosive (Maryland), and non-existent (Penn State) at times. It remains to be seen how the coaching staff will expand what Barrett can do through the air, but it should throw often and early, given the defense at hand.
As with Penn State's Saquon Barkley last week, the Ohio State defense faces another superstar capable of putting the team on his back. Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo has established himself as one of the premier targets in the nation, routinely burning defenses in the four games he's played.
In those four, Carroo has nine receiving touchdowns, while totaling 472 yards on just 21 catches. He's not just a deep threat, either:
The 6'1", 205 pound wideout is the complete package: he can burn the defensive back deep, shake press coverage, run crisp intermediate routes, go up and get a contested jump ball and he catches everything thrown his way. "He's a guy that we have a lot of respect for. A dynamic, big, strong guy... he's a tremendous player," Meyer said, when complimenting Carroo.
What makes Carroo such a great receiver is not just raw numbers, or the versatility in which he puts them up, but also his efficiency. Those 21 catches are on only 29 targets, putting Carroo at an elite 16 yards per target clip with a 72.4% catch rate. Rutgers quarterbacks haven't forced him the ball either, as Carroo's 17 percent target rate is nearly identical to fellow receiver Andre Patton. While he's listed as a game time decision due to an ankle injury against Indiana, he'll be a problem if he does play, even if hobbled.
That assignment falls to Eli Apple and Gareon Conley, both of whom have been outstanding this season. With that said, big plays continue to be an issue for the Ohio State defense as a whole, and it's likely that they'll give up a few Saturday to Carroo, regardless of if he's 100 percent or not. He's too good to completely stop, but if Ohio State's secondary can limit the damage he does to one or two long gains, the rest of the defense will thrive.
Bringing the pressure
Aside from having a great secondary, Ohio State has been best able to limit opposing passers with a dominant pass rush. Last week, the Buckeyes harassed Christian Hackenberg, making the Nittany Lions passing game almost non-existent aside from a few big plays. However, it's likely that type of pressure won't be seen in Piscataway.
Through good line play and getting the ball out quickly, Rutgers finds itself 9th nationally in adjusted sack rate, pairing it with one of the better passing offenses in the country. They've already faced the Penn State and Michigan State defensive lines, and held their own, for the most part.
Whether Ohio State's defensive line generates five sacks or not is probably irrelevant to the outcome of this game, but it's a good measuring stick against a competent passing offense with a adept line. Keep an eye on whether the Buckeyes can generate pressure with just their front four, or if Chris Ash and Luke Fickell decide to bring Darron Lee and Co. in often for extra heat.
All the small things
As mentioned earlier, Ohio State beat Penn State as badly as they did thanks in large part to a wide field position disparity. Meyer had a reputation for dominant special teams and field position when he came to Ohio State, and his first four seasons have done nothing to sully it.
This season may be the best combination yet, what with punter Cameron Johnston routinely dropping bombs, pinning opponents inside their 20, or generating no return at all. Opponents have only 35 punt return yards for the season, 25 of which came in the Maryland game alone. It may suck when Ohio State has to punt, but realize that Johnston is probably helping the offense (or defense!) score points in the long run.
On the flipside, Jalin Marshall has been an outstanding returner. I recognize the queasy feeling we all get in our stomach's with some of the risks he takes, but he has yet to fumble a punt, and ranks in the top 25 nationally in average return yards.
Finally, the offense and defense have both been efficient,- in either moving the ball enough, or stopping offenses before they get rolling- giving each other a favorable field to work with. It's these hidden yards that we rarely acknowledge that end up deciding games, and the Buckeyes are dominating in this area at the moment. At some point on Saturday, take time to watch these small things and see how they usually stack up in Ohio State's favor and play a major role in a Buckeye win.