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Ohio State at Rutgers: Game preview, prediction and 6 things to know

The Buckeyes get back into their conference schedule as they travel to Piscataway to face Rutgers.

Rutgers v Nebraska Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

The Ohio State Buckeyes managed to make quick work of the Rebels of UNLV Saturday, with barely any of the Buckeyes’ starters even cracking the lineup in the second half. The 55-21 win was decisive in many ways, but the Buckeyes still dropped to No. 11 in the AP Poll after strong performances from others across the country, breaking a 42-week streak of being rated in the top-10 nationally. Like their win over Army the week prior, however, the victory over UNLV went a long way in restoring confidence to an Ohio State squad still reeling from their loss to Oklahoma in Week 2.

This week, the Buckeyes jump back into conference play with Rutgers. After opening the season with a Big Ten opponent, Ohio State had a step up on their conference foes with an additional tune-up last week before getting back into the meat of their schedule with the Scarlet Knights. Ohio State has faced off against Rutgers just three times, all since the program joined the Big Ten in 2014, and has won all three matchups by at least five touchdowns. Last year’s 58-0 rout in Columbus was the biggest yet. This season, the Buckeyes opened as a 28.5-point favorite over the Scarlet Knights and, after beating even larger spreads over the past two weeks, are poised for another strong offensive performance.

Even with questions remaining around the passing game, specifically the ability of senior quarterback J.T. Barrett to live within Kevin Wilson’s high-flying offense in addition to a pass defense that has looked vulnerable at times, the Buckeyes have a few weeks to figure things out before their next major showdown of the season when Penn State comes to town. After Rutgers, Ohio State will get Maryland in Columbus before heading to a currently 2-2 Nebraska squad in Lincoln.

Sitting at 1-3 on the season, Rutgers has shown a lot of improvement over last year that is not reflected in their record. After opening with a 30-14 loss to Washington at home, the Scarlet Knights fell to Eastern Michigan by three points in Week 2. They rebounded with a 65-0 shutout of Morgan State of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference before falling once again to Nebraska 27-10 last weekend.

Rutgers currently ranks 110th nationally in total offense, averaging just 336.4 yards per game. Defense, however, is another story, as the Scarlet Knights, under former Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash, are allowing under 300 yards per game. That represents a big improvement over last season, when Rutgers averaged 462 yards on defense.

Not only is Ash facing off against his former team, but Greg Schiano, who took Ash’s place as defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes, is returning to Piscataway to face the team he coached up from obscurity for more than a decade. While all of Schiano’s former players have long-since departed New Jersey, a number of Ash’s players remain on defense for the Buckeyes, including Damon Webb and Jerome Baker.

Ohio State’s biggest advantages

One-two-(three) punch. Urban Meyer said earlier this week that sophomore running back Mike Weber would be back in the rotation Saturday alongside true freshman running back J.K. Dobbins. Weber, who has been sidelined for most of the season with a hamstring injury, has had just seven carries for 42 yards this year. Dobbins, meanwhile, has rushed for 520 yards already this season, and is well on-track to break 1,000 yards in his freshman season, just like Weber did last year when he earned Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. Meyer has even alluded to the possibility of having both Weber and Dobbins in the backfield simultaneously.

In just four games, Dobbins has already earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors twice after strong performances against Indiana and Army. While he didn’t break 100 yards last week (he finished with 95 yards on 14 carries), Dobbins didn’t even see the field in the second half, as he was sidelined with most of the other starters. His 520 yards are good for sixth in the country, and are ahead of Saquon Barkley’s total through last weekend.

Now, with Weber back, the Buckeyes have an even more dynamic ground game. Offensive tackle Jamarco Jones has remarked on Dobbins’ “explosiveness” as a balance to Weber’s ability to simply run through people. Dobbins is utterly elusive to defenders, while Weber can break tackles running up the middle. And all of that is discounting Barrett’s faculty with the option and his own ability to run through defenses. Without Weber on the field, the Buckeyes are still averaging just under 230 yards on the ground per game. Individually, defenses would be hardpressed to stop any of these components. Together, it’s a much taller order.

Barrett is back in the Zone (6). After struggling against Oklahoma, Barrett has put together two solid performances against Army and UNLV to get the haters off his back. On the way, he broke Drew Brees’ Big Ten record for touchdowns responsible for with 107. He has since added to that total with five more passing touchdowns against the Rebels. Also last week, Barrett made up the 95-yard differential and passed Bobby Hoying to move to second place on the all-time in passing yards for Ohio State. Now, Barrett is just 200 yards behind Art Schlichter’s record, set in 1981.

Beyond Barrett, Zone 6 has begun to come together quite nicely, with seven different players catching a touchdown pass Saturday. While we must remember that these receptions came against UNLV, the 116th-best passing defense in the FBS, it is a massive improvement over the utter stagnation that plagued the Oklahoma game. While receivers previously dropped passes, eliminating the possibility of a vertical passing game, they now have become more reliable both downfield and with shorter passes. It takes much of the pressure off Barrett and, just as the run is used to open up the passing game, further opens up the run as the variety of offensive weapons keeps defenses on their toes.

Starting against Rutgers, continued production from this group over the next few weeks should breed confidence and further improvement before Ohio State’s next big matchup against Penn State.

Isn’t that special? Yes, it is. Once again, Ohio State’s special team have proven to be a difference maker on the field. The departure of Aussie punter Cameron Johnston at the end of last season left a massive void that, mercifully, redshirt freshman Drue Chrisman has been able to fill. His water bottle flipping skills aside, Chrisman has demonstrated Johnston’s same ability to flip the field to Ohio State’s advantage. Last week against UNLV, Chrisman continued in this theme by landing both of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Through four weeks on the season, opponents have managed zero (yes, zero) return yards on 14 punts, and Chrisman has had just one touchback. He is averaging more than 40 yards per punt, with several attempts going longer than 50 yards.

Kicker Sean Nuernberger, likewise, has been Mr. Reliable on field goals this season, connecting on all seven attempts. He is also 18-for-18 on extra points this season. After sitting out two seasons due to injury, the job is finally Nuernberger’s. Even so, Meyer has stuck with freshman Blake Haubeil on kickoff duties, despite expressing displeasure over the unit’s performance. Saturday, one of Haubeil’s kickoffs went out of bounds. Nuernberger may step into the kickoff role eventually but, for now, will stick to field goals and extra points.

Rutgers’ biggest advantages

Fielding a defense. After finishing low in nearly every defensive category last season, Chris Ash has the Scarlet Knights back on track--at least defensively. In the first game of the season, Rutgers gave a top-10 Washington squad a run for their money. The 30 points scored by the Huskies is their lowest point total all season, and was far better than the 48 points allowed by the Scarlet Knights in their matchup with Washington last year. Rutgers followed up with a low-scoring struggle against Eastern Michigan and a shutout against Morgan State. Even the 27 points surrendered to Nebraska showed an improvement in defense over last season’s conference opponents.

Most dramatically, Rutgers ranks 32nd nationally in run defense this season, allowing 118.8 yards per game on the ground. Last year, however, Chris Ash’s squad was 126th out of 128 teams in the FBS in the category, giving up 264.2 yards per game to opponents. The Scarlet Knights have actually been pretty good when it comes to pass defense, surrendering just 179.5 yards per game. Even this is an improvement over last year’s total of 186.5 yards per game. Unfortunately for Rutgers, however, cornerback Blessuan Austin, who is arguably the best player on the Rutgers defense, tore his ACL Saturday versus Nebraska, and is done for the season.

In terms of total defense, Rutgers is allowing just 18.3 points and just 298.3 yard per game this season. That’s a vast improvement from last year, when the Scarlet Knights gave up 450.7 total yards per game, and were 116th in the nation in scoring defense with 37.5 points against per game.

Experience. Rutgers has mainly juniors and seniors (including many graduate transfers) on both sides of the ball. Kyle Bolin, their starting quarterback, previously played at Louisville before transferring to Rutgers. Bolin played for three seasons at Louisville, but was ultimately beat out for the starting quarterback job by future Heisman-winner Lamar Jackson before the start of the 2015 season. Bolin has played in 13 games as a Cardinal, including six starts, but wound up as the third-string quarterback at Louisville before he transferred to Rutgers. Now, in Bolin’s final year of eligibility as a grad transfer, Bolin won the three-way position battle, and brings a wealth of experience to the quarterback spot.

Starting running back Gus Edwards is also a graduate transfer from the ACC, coming to Rutgers from Miami (Fl). Through four games this season, Edwards has rushed 62 times for 259 yards and two touchdowns. While he was never a starter at Miami, he was third on the team in rushing in 2013, 2014 and 2016 (he missed 2015 due to injury).

Standout receiver Janarion Grant is back for another year. After finishing last season third on the team in receiving yards, the senior complements junior tight end Jerome Washington and senior receiver Damon Mitchell, neither of whom cracked the lineup last season for the Scarlet Knights, but who are the leading receivers thus far this season. Grant is also listed as the starter for both kickoff and punt returns.

Chris Ash. The former Buckeye assistant is just two years removed from his time at Ohio State. As previously mentioned, he is intimately familiar with many of the players who remain on the defense, and could leverage this information to his advantage. Still, Meyer is 8-1 in matchups against former assistant coaches.

It’s been a tough road for Ash at Rutgers. In his first head coaching gig with the Scarlet Knights, Ash is 3-13, and has yet to win a conference matchup in the Big Ten. This experience is obviously in sharp contrast to his tenure at Ohio State, when the Buckeyes went a collective 15-1 in the Big Ten. And most of it is not Ash’s fault, as he inherited both the team and the NCAA sanctions resulting from failure to control the football program by Kyle Flood, the previous coach.

Ash has a long way ahead to keep Rutgers improving, especially with both self-imposed and recent NCAA sanctions brought on from Flood’s tenure. But Ash is a strong defensive mind and, even if this year is not a highly competitive matchup against the Buckeyes, he will likely get there eventually.

Summary

F/+ Projection: Ohio State 44, Rutgers 9

Win Probability: Ohio State 96.7%

Saturday’s matchup should once again be smooth sailing for the Buckeyes as they continue to gain momentum heading into their conference schedule. Though Rutgers’ defense is showing consistent improvement, Ohio State simply has too many weapons on both sides of the ball for the Scarlet Knights to match up with.

How to watch, stream, listen to Ohio State at Rutgers:

Game time: Saturday September 30th, 7:30 PM ET

TV: Big Ten Network

Streaming: BTN2Go

Radio: 97.1 WBNS-FM