After a week off following their triumphant trip to Norman, the second-ranked Buckeyes are preparing to welcome an old friend back to the ‘Shoe in the form of new Rutgers Head Coach, Chris Ash. The former Ohio State Defensive Coordinator has guided the Scarlet Knights to a 2-2 (0-1) record in his first four games at the helm, coming off of a late 14-7 setback against Iowa last week. Despite an early .500 record, Rutgers has already had an up-and-down season.
Following an opening week blowout at the hands of Washington (now ranked in the AP Top-10), the Knights struggled early before pulling away against Howard and New Mexico ahead of dropping a heartbreaker against the Hawkeyes.
The betting line for this Saturday’s matchup opened at an absurdly wide margin, and the Buckeyes have outscored their first three opponents 170-37. So, conventional wisdom would dictate that the Ohio State offense will have its way with the Scarlet Knights. While that might eventually prove to be the case, Rutgers has allowed only 362.5 yards per week this season; a far cry from the 545.3 that the Buckeyes have averaged offensively.
While early season statistics aren’t always the best indicator of a team’s true identity, Ash will undoubtedly get his offensive units up to speed on the players that he coached in Columbus for the past two seasons. However, one of the most interesting aspects of the game will be on the other side of the ball, and how running back Mike Weber is used against Rutgers’ beat up front four.
Rutgers gave up 193 yards rushing against Iowa last week on 38 carries, most of which came before senior defensive end Quanzell Lambert suffered a season-ending knee injury. The team also lost one of the best playmakers in school history, wide receiver Janarion Grant.
So, while it is possible, and perhaps even probable, that given Ohio State’s dominating offensive line that many of the team’s running backs could be successful this week, it will be instructive to see how Weber responds in his first taste of Big Ten action, especially in advance of more bruising games on the horizon. It will also be telling how and where Offensive Coordinators Ed Warinner and Tim Beck choose to get him his touches. For that reason, Mike Weber is this week’s offensive player to watch.
Name: Mike Weber
Position: Running Back
Year: RS Freshman
Weight: 222 lbs.
The first-year running back has instantly become a vital cog in the Ohio State offense, racking up 351 yards rushing and a touchdown in his first three collegiate games. While he has not yet shown the breakaway speed that Buckeye fans became accustomed to from Ezekiel Elliot and Carlos Hyde, Weber has proven that he is an effective between-the-tackles runner, who is able to get to the second level and occasionally make defenders miss.
While Weber has yet to break through with a signature long run, like Hyde’s against Michigan or Elliot’s against Alabama, he has appeared on the doorstep of breaking one off on multiple occasions, only to be tripped up at the last second by a defender. Given two weeks to recuperate following his first true game action since his high school senior season in 2014, perhaps this could be the game in which Weber has his moment.
Rutgers’ first four opponents have been incredibly well balanced offensively, passing for 723 yards and rushing for 727. However, the Scarlet Knights have not yet faced an offense as explosively balanced as Ohio State. The Buckeyes lead the Big Ten in scoring offense (56.7), total offense (545.3), rushing offense (306/gm), and yards per play (7.1).
In the best-case scenario, Rutgers’ defense would be thoroughly tested by the OSU offense, but late in the game against Iowa, Lambert, one of the team’s defensive leaders, suffered a knee injury that will cost him the balance of his season. Lambert had a total of 15 tackles on the year, including 1.5 for loss, and he led the team with four quarterback hurries.
This week’s depth chart shows that RS junior Darnell Davis will take over on the right side of the Rutgers line. Though not as experienced as Lambert, Davis does have eight tackles thus far in 2016, including two behind the line of scrimmage.
Davis will most often be going up against Ohio State’s left defensive tackle Jamarco Jones, who created a number of massive holes for Weber to run through against Oklahoma.
What to watch for
It’s unlikely that Ohio State will need a Herculean effort from Weber to defeat the Scarlet Knights, but with more potentially taxing games on the horizon, it will be interesting to see how the Buckeye coaching staff uses the freshman back, and how he responds.
Given the attention paid to quarterback J.T. Barrett’s efficiency and H-back Curtis Samuel’s playmaking ability, Weber has become a bit of an under-the-radar weapon; chipping away at defenses for small chunks of yards at a time. Averaging 6.4 yards per carry, Weber is nearly always a threat to tear off a big gain, but hasn’t had many opportunities to make a spashy impact on the offense yet.
So far this season, Weber has seen the ball almost exclusively via the zone-read, and against Oklahoma, those runs were almost always designed to go up the middle; even though he did have success bouncing outside to extend plays and pick up extra yardage.
However, in previous games the play calling did allow for opportunities for the freshman to get to the outside via counters, sweeps, and screens.
Though Ohio State’s explosive playcallers have H-backs Samuel and Dontre Wilson at their disposal, it will be telling to see if they find opportunities to get Weber in space in order to allow him to not only show off his speed, but to also prevent him from taking as many hits as he has in the season’s first three games.
The Rutgers defense has only allowed three runs of 23 or more yards this season, two of which went for touchdowns, and while he has been tantalizingly on more than a few times, it would be nice to see Weber have a break away run and a breakthrough game this weekend.