One of the great things about SB Nation, is that it truly is a nation of sports blogs*. This little corner of the Blogosphere is very Ohio State-centric, obviously, but at any given time, you're just a few clicks away from learning about, and reading about, any other team in the country. That includes this week's Buckeye opponent, the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers.
*hence SB Nation...I just got that.
This is Ohio State's first trip to the Big Ten's most eastern member, and only their second meeting ever against Rutgers (last year featured a 56-17 victory in Columbus). There's much to learn about the Scarlet Knights that will be across the field from the Buckeyes, so I talked to Aaron Breitman from SB Nation's Rutgers blog On The Banks, about what to expect when these two new foes square off.
And I made a GIF of Brutus as Tony Soprano. You're welcome.
Land-Grant Holy Land: Give me the elevator speech (read: a paragraph) on the state of the Scarlet Knights this year.
On The Banks: So much to say and only one paragraph. A proud fanbase after last season's performance led to increased expectations coming into this season. Then a nightmare first month of the season occurred, on multiple levels. Obviously the suspension and details of the behavior regarding head coach Kyle Flood hurt the most. The Leonte Carroo suspension was surreal, but thankfully resolved. Since the bye week, the team has put all the distractions behind them and played well. The remaining schedule is brutal and getting to six wins and bowl eligibility will be difficult. The past two games have given the fanbase renewed hope that it is possible.
LGHL: Head Coach Kyle Flood has had an interesting year, to say the least. What do you think about his future at Rutgers? Is he the coach next year, or is his tenure pretty much over?
OTB: When the details about his improper contact with a professor emerged, it was disturbing. A good portion of the fan base was defending Flood through the entire investigation, which took about a month. There was concern the media was making it a bigger scandal that it should have been, until the facts were disclosed. It wasn't pretty and Flood lost a lot of support when the investigative report became public. Personally, I thought he should have been fired and at the time was certain he would be by the end of the season. Now, I'm not so sure. If the team continues to play better against the top teams in the conference than they did last season and somehow sneak into a bowl game, he stays for sure.
I would say right now there are two scenarios in which Flood is let go: either the team falls apart and is not competitive the rest of the season or another scandal of some type develops. He lost the benefit of the doubt, so his margin for error is much smaller than before. Additional reasons Rutgers retains Flood are that he has put together a solid yet unspectacular recruiting class and his salary is the lowest of any Big Ten and power 5 conference football coach. The fear is that Rutgers will be unwilling to pay his replacement a competitive salary until our full conference share kicks in come 2020. Our athletic department is the most subsidized in the country, by far. The lack of money is also a concern with necessary facility upgrades, but that is a discussion for another day.
LGHL: Other than Penn State, Rutgers has played its two losses (to an upstart Washington State, and to Michigan State) very close. Admittedly, I haven't watched a lot of Rutgers football this year, but those two games' results stick out. Is Rutgers better than their 3-3 record, and if so, how much?
OTB: Their record is what they deserve because they didn't make enough plays in those losses to win those games. The Washington State loss hurts because it really set back the odds of Rutgers making a bowl game. It's also never fun to lose to a team you upset the year before. The reality of that game is almost our entire two deep in the secondary is comprised of redshirt and true freshman, who were playing in their second college game ever, against Mike Leach and the "Air Raid" offense. It was the worst possible match-up, on top of our quarterback Chris Laviano making his first collegiate start, and Rutgers was outplayed.
That being said, if the defense had made one more stop it would have been enough to win. Frustrating to say the least. The Michigan State loss actually provided hope that this season would not be a complete waste and the team was capable of turning the season around. Obviously a win would have been amazing, but the team made progress in that game and has given them confidence ahead of playing Ohio State.
LGHL: Ohio State's defense has been an improved unit on 3rd and 4th down of late, but struggles on defense against Indiana and Maryland, not to mention penalties, have been a bit of an issue this year. How do you think Rutgers will try and attack the Buckeye defense?
OTB: Rutgers is currently ranked 1st in the Big Ten and 10th nationally in third down conversion rate at 48.7%, so it will be interesting if they can continue that success against the Buckeyes. The last two games proved the offense is finally starting to come into it's own. In addition to Laviano being a first year starter, our offensive coordinator Ben McDaniels is in his first year as well. He was way too predictable early in the season, with the Penn State game frustrating the fanbase beyond belief. Having Leonte Carroo, the best receiver in the Big Ten, back on the field has done wonders for the offense. He can run any route and catch any ball thrown his way. Rutgers had no deep passing game until Carroo returned, which in turn is helping to open up the intermediate and shorter routes.
Still, the key for Rutgers is to establish success with the running game early. We feature three backs that are on a rotation between drives, also frustrating the fanbase. Sophomores Robert Martin and Josh Hicks, along with senior Paul James, all have big play ability. Used in combination, the strategy is to keep grinding the defense until they wear down in the 4th quarter. The issue has been if one back has a great drive, they usually have to wait their turn for another drive, thus ruining their flow of momentum. Paul James had a 72 yard run against Michigan State that got Rutgers going, only to have only one more carry the entire game. Robert Martin, who had 124 yards rushing against Indiana, but at one point in the 3rd quarter had 70 yards on only 4 carries. Finally in the 4th quarter, Flood chose to stick with the hot hand and pounded the ball with Martin. He is sticking with the rotation for now, but I would think if Martin gets hot early against the Buckeyes, the rotation will be less utilized than any other game so far.
To summarize, Rutgers will try and establish the run early, rotating personnel, while also getting Carroo involved right away. Depending on Carroo's ankle, I wouldn't be surprised to see them try a deep route or two at the start, in hopes of keeping the defense on their toes and gaining momentum early. If the offense can get in a rhythm early, they will stick to the run while mixing in big plays through the air. That would be ideal and anything less gives them little chance to give the Buckeyes a run for their money.
LGHL: Rutgers is 124th (out of 127) in passing yards allowed, but 30th in rush defense. Ohio State comes in with J.T. Barrett and Ezekiel Elliott as the main weapons running the ball. Can the statistically better rush defense handle the Buckeye attack on the ground, or will the Buckeyes be able to take advantage of issues in the defensive backfield?
OTB: I have no delusions of grandeur that Rutgers can be successful in stopping the Ohio State run game, but they are better equipped personnel wise to do so than versus the pass. Two starters in the secondary, Blessuan Austin and Davon Jacobs, are listed as questionable after leaving last week's game. There is talent among the newcomers but they are still learning on the job. Indiana quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw for almost 500 yards against them last week. They are improving though, picking off Sudfeld twice in the 4th quarter to help aid the 25 point comeback win. In terms of the run, our linebacking core of senior captain Quentin Gause and junior Steve Longa are the two best defensive players on the team. They combined for 26 tackles last week and seem to be everywhere on the field lately. Combine that with a disappointing pass rush from the defensive line this entire season, on paper a run first team is a much better match-up for the Rutgers defense. However, we have not faced anyone near the talent level of players like Ezekiel Elliott and J.T. Barrett. It will be a major test for this defense and limiting the big play is a must.
LGHL: This is Ohio State's first trip to the Garden State. Some of the faithful will probably head to the Tri-State area for the game. What are three things Buckeye fans should look forward to doing this weekend?
OTB: New Brunswick is a 45 minute train ride to New York City, so visiting the Big Apple should be required. I would advise skipping Times Square and finding one of the hundreds of great restaurants the city has to offer. The city also has great museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the American Museum of Natural History. Lastly, I would walk around the Rutgers campus, which is much nicer than what most people expect. There are also plenty of bars around town, all within walking distance of the train station. If you are taking the train in, you can walk through campus down college avenue and catch a free bus to the stadium, which is a 5 minute ride. Ohio State fans should expect a friendly reception, although some Rutgers fans may keep a safe distance as we will be reminded of our fear of a blow out upon seeing you.
LGHL: Cards on the table: the line on this game is Buckeyes over Scarlet Knights by about three touchdowns (and the advanced stats like Ohio State a little more). Do the Advanced Stats and Vegas have it right?
OTB: Well I am the guy who wrote this, so I do think the game will be closer than the advanced stats and Vegas say. Rutgers always plays well at home for night games in recent memory. That doesn't mean they will be close to perfect, but after everything this team has been through, their confidence is at an all-time high. The crowd will pumped up at the start, thus Rutgers needing to play well in the opening quarter to build momentum. Honestly, all I am asking for is Rutgers to keep it close and be within striking distance of Ohio State entering the 4th quarter. Injuries could be a major problem for Rutgers, as five starters are listed as questionable this week. I do think most will play and the team will represent well. The last time the #1 team in the country played at Rutgers was 2002 when Miami was trailing one of the worst Rutgers teams ever, losing 14-13 entering the 14th quarter. Who knows what can happen, but honestly as long as they make it a game and don't get decimated by injuries, it would be hard to complain. Good luck to all Ohio State fans, although Rutgers needs a lot more luck than you do!
Many thanks to Aaron for stopping by and giving us his thoughts. I did a Q&A for them, so check out On The Banks for that. In fact, spend some time on the banks today - they run a great site.