Since joining the Big Ten in 2014, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights have had a tough time finding the kind of sustained success that they enjoyed during the volatile yet productive tenure of coach Greg Schiano. After a promising 8-5 inaugural season (in which they were shellacked by Ohio State, 56-17), the team foundered in 2015, going just 4-8, a record poor enough to get Kyle Flood fired as head coach.
Enter Chris Ash. The former Bret Bielema understudy and Urban Meyer disciple was named head coach at Rutgers earlier this year, and has looked to bring to New Jersey the kind of creative, disciplined defense that helped him make his name as one of the best assistant coaches in the game over the last decade.
It’s been a mixed bag for Ash in his first year at the helm of The New York TV Market’s Favorite Team. The Scarlet Knights sit at 2-2, with two non-conference wins against FCS school Howard and bottom-tier New Mexico to go with a drubbing at the hands of trendy playoff pick Washington and a 14-7 loss in a barnburner against Iowa. And hey, it’s no crime to win the games you’re supposed to win and lose the ones you’re supposed to lose. (If you’re Kirk Ferentz, you can even lose the ones you’re supposed to win and end up with a fat contract extension.)
But the team lining up across from Rutgers this weekend isn’t Howard or New Mexico. Ohio State has steamrolled its way to a 3-0 record, and they’ll be fresh off a bye week when the Knights come to town. You may recall the Buckeyes putting a hurt on preseason playoff darling Oklahoma the last time they took the field, on the back of four Noah Brown touchdown catches and a defense unafraid to hit the Sooner offense right in the mouth.
The Scarlet Knights daren’t have much hope heading into Saturday’s tilt. Here’s how the teams stack up:
Ohio State advantages
Ground assault. By just about every advanced statistical measure, the Buckeyes are a top-3 team running the ball. Urban Meyer’s recruiting prowess and player development have left Ohio State loaded when they go to the ground game, getting reliable contributions from Curtis Samuel, Mike Weber, and J.T. Barrett. The read-option run game looked pretty vanilla in the first six quarters of football they played this season, but as the passing game has found its tempo, so has the run opened up for the Buckeyes.
By contrast, Rutgers’ rush defense has been middling at best in 2016. Chris Ash is a phenomenal defensive coach, but he didn’t inherit nearly the level of talent that he got to work with in Columbus; the loss of star linebacker Quanzell Lambert for the season during last week’s loss to Iowa isn’t going to improve the unit’s prospects.
The No-Fly Zone. Ohio State’s defense was supposed to take a few steps back this season for a whole host of reasons, not least of which was the loss of several members of its all-star secondary. Eli Apple, Vonn Bell, and Tyvis Powell are all cashing checks in the NFL now, but you wouldn’t know the Buckeyes had lost a thing. The pass defense under Greg Schiano (hey, him again!) has looked as staunch as ever, and guys like Malik Hooker are doing their damnedest to become household names in 2016. Rutgers has an experienced, if uninspiring, quarterback in Chris Laviano, but he’s struggled mightily against Buckeye defenses past. Given that he lost his best offensive weapon, wide receiver Janarion Grant, during the Iowa game, it’s hard to like Laviano’s chances against this secondary.
Air raid. If you have an older sibling, you’re probably familiar with the sequence of events from childhood in which said sibling would dominate you in a game by just doing the same thing, over and over and over again, because they knew you couldn’t stop it. (For me, it was getting racked by my older brother in chess and NFL Blitz 2000.) That’s the kind of sonnin’ that J.T. Barrett and Noah Brown gave to the Oklahoma Sooners two weeks ago. Brown’s first four catches went for touchdowns, all on plays designed to get him in one-on-one coverage on the left side of the end zone. Michiah Quick caught the worst of it when Brown put him on a poster for the year’s most sensational catch—Spencer Hall’s trolling be damned—but the whole Sooner secondary probably needed a hug after what Barrett and Brown pulled off.
It’s not just No. 80 that gets the love from Barrett, either. The Buckeyes have so many weapons that they have no trouble spreading the ball around; Barrett’s top three targets (Curtis Samuel, Brown, and Dontre Wilson) boast catch rates of 94.1%, 75%, and 80% so far this season, a testament both to the quarterback’s efficiency and the stud-caliber talent that Urban Meyer has put together at receiver. Barrett’s thrown 39 passes to those three receivers, and nine of them have gone for touchdowns.
Ash is on Meyer’s coaching tree. Several former Urban Meyer assistants are now coaches at the FBS level, and while Chris Ash inherited a much tougher situation than, say, Tom Herman at Houston, he does have the advantage of knowing Meyer’s process, and has gotten a chance to try putting his own spin on what he learned at Ohio State (not to mention at Wisconsin and Arkansas). Per our own Chris Jason:
Ash and Mehringer are used to watching a bullying offensive line and a talented power back move the chains, especially in short yardage situations...it’s clear that Mehringer intended to set the tone of the season by running Meyer’s bread-and-butter, the inside zone.
Of course, having Meyer’s playbook doesn’t mean that Ash has the personnel to stop it or take advantage of it. Still, Ash isn’t likely to get bamboozled by Meyer the way other coaches have been in the past.
Bye week speed bump? Look, no one should brag about being the team that won a game because a far superior team got caught snoozing or looking past them. But the Buckeyes are coming off of a bye week, and are so heavily favored against the Scarlet Knights—Vegas likes the Buckeyes by 38.5—that it’s not unfathomable that they could come out flat and play some disappointing football, at least in the first half. That seems like the best chance the Scarlet Knights have to put some points on the board early and hope to contain the Ohio State stable of playmakers in the second half.
The Buckeyes get Indiana next week, a team ranked 50 places higher than Rutgers in the S&P+, and one which looks to have a more dynamic offense than the Scarlet Knights do. Looking ahead? Sleeping on the job? They’re not out of the question for Ohio State, though that’s a slim hope to hang your hat on if you live in New Jersey.
F/+ Projection: Ohio State 49.7, Rutgers 11.5
Win Probability: Ohio State 99%
After the inject-it-into-my-veins excitement of the last Buckeye game, here’s hoping this one is a bit of a snoozer, one well in hand for Urban Meyer and co. by halftime. The Buckeyes will have done everything right if we see Joe Burrow getting a lot of work late in the game and a margin of victory that surpasses the advanced stats prediction for this one. Without a huge blowout here, the Buckeyes could very well lose their No. 2 ranking to the winner of the Louisville-Clemson game, the winner of which will boast an undefeated record and a win over a fellow top-five team.
Of course, only one ranking really matters now that the College Football Playoff exists, so there’s little reason to think Coach Meyer will be wringing his hands about the AP poll after five weeks of play. The Buckeyes are going to cruise in this one, and our best hope is for a few more plays to add to the highlight reel and a game devoid of injuries to the Buckeyes’ top contributors.