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Defensive leadership of Isaiah Wharton, Saquan Hampton will be key vs. Ohio State

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Senior leaders in the Scarlet Knights’ secondary will have to hold the fort down against the Buckeyes.

Rutgers v Minnesota Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

It’s only Week 2 of the college football season, but the No. 4 Ohio State Buckeyes and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights are going to tango in a Big Ten East conference clash. While OSU is a heavy favorite—currently 35.5 points on Wednesday afternoon—against Chris Ash’s squad, this game sets the trajectory for where these teams are going.

A runaway win for the Bucks gives them momentum, as well as a 2-0 record, heading into the non-conference marquee game with TCU next Saturday. A big loss for Rutgers sets them back at 1-1 before going to Kansas, a team that was shook by an FCS team in Week 1.

More so for Rutgers, this game is a litmus test for the progress that the team has made under third-year head coach Ash, especially in relation to the loaded Big Ten East. Even though they’ll get Penn State and Michigan at home, Rutgers will have road games against Michigan State, Wisconsin, and this Saturday with the Bucks. Taking stock of how the team does against OSU will give Ash a chance to see what works, and what doesn’t work, as his program navigates the rest of the season.

On the defensive side of the ball, pass defense will be one of the biggest obstacles that Rutgers faces this week. Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins had a field day last Saturday, throwing for 313 yards and 5 touchdowns in the Buckeyes’ 77-31 win against Oregon State. On top of that, Haskins had the highest passing yardage and touchdown totals for a first time starter in Ohio State history. And he did it without throwing the deep ball.

The task this week will be limiting the success of Haskins, which will fall on the shoulders of cornerback Isaiah Wharton and free safety Saquan Hampton. Both fifth-year seniors are captains on the team, and that will be important on the field this weekend. Flanked by fellow senior Blessuan Austin and junior safety Damon Hayes in the secondary, the two captains will have to keep morale up if Haskins begins finding success in the passing attack. A big reason for the short-game passing success—which then ballooned to big gains because of receiver’s speed—last week for Ohio State was due to soft coverage.

Oregon State was leaving room underneath for passes to be made with ease. On his 75-yard TD reception, wideout Terry McLaurin caught the pass for about seven yards, before weaving around the defense and sprinting down the sideline the rest of the way for the score. The occasional 15- or 20-yard pickup in the air also moved the ball for the Buckeye offense. But, the success in the air can be attributed to the success on the ground—one that saw running back Mike Weber break off 186 yards and three scores.

Locking down McLaurin will be the task for the Rutgers secondary. Whether that be Wharton or Austin, one of them will have to be keyed in on where the speedy WR is on the field. Another 100-yard receiving effort by McLaurin will be disastrous in the Scarlet Knights’ quest in keeping this game close. One of the safeties might need to play “center field” and cut off any post routes that are dialed up by the Buckeye offense. If they can force a few deeper throws from Haskins down the middle, there is a chance for turnovers to be created. A bugaboo that dug the Beavers even deeper into a deficit against Ohio State was turnovers. Working the other way, takeaways created by Rutgers could keep this game relatively close.

Wharton leads the Scarlet Knights’ active roster with 24 career pass breakups, and has had four multi-pass deflection games. He’s going to need to get a few breakups this week, and maybe even an interception to help bolster the Scarlet Knights defense. He’s chased down receivers and seen quite a bit of passes throughout his time in Piscataway, N.J, as he’s played in 37 games for the program.

Hampton has a handful of pass deflections of his own; he’s tallied eight, but also has a pair of interceptions. His goal this week is to stop the short pass from busting open into a big gain. Between McLaurin, Austin Mack, K.J. Hill and Parris Campbell, they cannot only catch the ball, but they can turn on the afterburners and run away from you. If passes do get completed, Hampton’s got to be in the immediate vicinity to record the tackle.

If he can make that happen, then the Rutgers defense can limit the “chunk” play from happening—ultimately keeping the game close. Don’t make that happen, and Rutgers will be in line to become Oregon State 2.0.

Ash doesn’t have an easy job as head coach. When he first arrived a couple of seasons ago, he took over a program that was in freefall. He’s turned around the culture, but there’s still work to be done on the field. Could this be a bowl season for the Knights? It’s a possibility.

By having Ohio State early on the schedule, Ash and the staff can figure out what they are doing well, and what will need work. The Buckeyes will probably rack up 50 points in a win, but if the Rutgers secondary plays well, then there’s promise at what this team can do in the next few weeks, which include winnable games against Kansas and Indiana.

If the secondary does have a good Saturday, then it’ll be based on the leadership of Wharton and Hampton.