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Column: Five things to watch for in the Ohio State-Rutgers game

I’ll be looking at Fields’ Heisman campaign, OSU’s running back depth, Brendon White’s progression, and more.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 16 Ohio State at Rutgers Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Every game day of the 2020 season, I will be running through five things to watch in that day’s contest. They could be something that schematic, an opposing player, or an on-field trend. Let me know what you’ll be watching for in the comments below.

Tonight at 7:30 p.m. ET, the No. 3 Ohio State Buckeyes (2-0) will host the Rutgers Scarlet Knights (1-1) coached by former Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano in his return tenure in Piscataway.

Ohio State is starting a month-and-a-half-long slog through the mediocrity of the Big Ten East as they look to accumulate enough wins and style points to earn a berth to the College Football Playoff. While the eventual outcomes of OSU’s final six regular season games don’t appear to really be in question at this point (not that we are counting any Ws before they’re hatched, of course), there is still a lot that we can learn in what are universally expected to be blowouts.

1) Justin Fields’ Heisman campaign

The Buckeyes’ quarterback is the only returning Heisman Trophy finalist from a season ago — when former Buckeye Joe Burrow won the trophy, lest you forget — but, because the Big Ten started later than the ACC, SEC, and Big 12, Justin Fields began the season in a bit of a hole when it came to the most prestigious individual award in all of sports.

However, following two nearly perfect performances against Nebraska and Penn State, Fields is again back in the mix for the Heisman. He is also aided by the fact that early favorite, Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, is missing his second-straight game today following a positive COVID diagnosis.

Despite missing some time, I don’t expect Lawrence to completely drop out of the conversation, and Alabama’s Mac Jones is clearly a contender as well. So, with the Buckeyes getting ready for a string of blowouts over the next six weeks (perhaps interupted only by Indiana on Nov. 21), I am interested to see how head coach Ryan Day and the offensive staff call the game.

Fields was very honest about the Heisman Trophy being one of the reasons why he never wavered in his commitment to Ohio State following the Big Ten’s initial cancellation of the season, but he has also been outspoken about how last season’s loss to Clemson has motivated him.

So, it is safe to assume that he would like to be recognized as the best player in college football, but that takes a bit of a backseat to the team goal of winning the national title. Therefore, against overmatched opponents, I am interested to see just how long the staff allows Fields to remain in games, and how often they let him throw once the game is in hand.

One factor that I think could definitely help Fields in terms of the Heisman race is his ability to run. While Lawrence can obviously run when needed, he is nowhere near the rushing threat that Fields potentially could be. But, after watching the first two games of this season, I feel fairly confident in saying that I was wrong when I assumed that Fields would run the ball more in 2020. Even though it might help him in his Heisman campaign, I don’t expect Fields to be running the ball all that much, at least until The Game and/or the B1G Championship.

2) Running back depth

There’s been a lot of discussion and consternation about the lack of an elite running back for the Buckeyes this season. After seeing J.K. Dobbins become the first OSU back in history to go for more than 2,000 yards in a season, Ohio State fans haven’t felt all that inspired yet by the combination of Master Teague and Trey Sermon in the backfield.

I’m of the opinion that the Buckeyes don’t need a game-breaker at running back to win the national title this season, they just need a solid back (or two) who can get around five yards per carry to keep defenses honest, and I think both Teague and Sermon can do that.

But, I would also like to see what backs like Steele Chambers and Miyan Williams have to offer as well, and today’s the perfect time to start that. Chambers showed sparks in limited action during the Week 1 win over Nebraska, but Williams hasn’t yet played following an injury that had him deemed inactive against Nebraska.

I would love to see Chambers get about a quarter of the carries today in order to see how he can look against a not horrible Rutgers defense, and I’d like to see Williams get some action as well, if the staff determines him healthy enough to do so.

I believe that Sermon and Teague will improve throughout the season and will be more than serviceable when the Buckeyes make it to the postseason. But, it wouldn’t hurt to see if either Chambers or Williams (or especially Marcus Crowley when/if he is healthy to play this season) can add the explosive dimension to the running game that is currently missing.

3) Brendon White

When it was reported that former Ohio State safety Brendon White would transfer from Ohio State, I was really disappointed. He had come on incredibly strong during the latter half of his sophomore season in 2018, but was completely misused last year as his move to the “bullet” position never actually materialized.

Two weeks later when he announced that he would be joining his former d-cor at Rutgers, I thought it made sense, as he was always built to excel in Greg Schiano’s defense. Last season under Jeff Hafley and Greg Mattison’s scheme, White only managed 19 tackles on the entire season (he left the team following the B1G title game). However, through just two games in 2020, White has 15 tackles and an interception.

In addition, White is an Ohio State legacy, the son of former OSU and NFL star William White, and in my opinion, deserved far more than he got in Columbus. Not just because his dad was a Buckeye, but because he proved that he had the speed, strength, and talent to be a difference-maker on defense.

So today, I’m excited to see how he will matchup against an absolutely elite Buckeye passing game that he is obviously very familiar with. I want nothing but good things for White’s future (just not to good of things tonight, of course).

4) Quarterback rotation

When the Buckeyes finally put enough distance between them and Nebraska in Week 1, Jack Miller III was the first quarterback off of the bench to replace Justin Fields. He didn’t throw a pass, but he did rush for a touchdown (which Day later apologized for).

Normally, I think that you would expect that the first QB in after the starter comes out is the second-string quarterback. But, in this case, I think that there might be a little more going on than meets the eye. Miller committed to Ohio State pretty early on in his recruitment, July 1, 2018 to be exact, some 19 months before Signing Day.

And despite a number of injuries and the Buckeyes signing another highly rated QB in the class, Miller’s commitment to the Buckeyes never wavered, and I think that Day rewarded the freshman for that loyalty and gave him the first non-Fields QB snaps of the season.

However, now that he’s gotten his first action, I’m interested to see how the backup time gets divvied moving forward. Will Miller continue to be QB2, or will C.J. Stroud or even Gunnar Hoak be in the rotation as well? Will the first backup in change by game? How will the playing time be split? If Fields has to miss a play or a series for one reason or another, which QB gets the call?

We obviously didn’t have the opportunity to learn much in this regard last week against Penn State, but I think that this will be the beginning of a lot of PT for the backups over the next six weeks.

5) Whether or not Ryan Day will run the score up on Greg Schiano

I said on the LGHL Tailgate podcast this morning when I was making my score prediction that I don’t think that Ryan Day will want to run up the score on his former colleague, Greg Schiano. The Rutgers head coach was not only a coworker for Day, but he also served as an important resource for Day when he was surprisingly thrust into the interim head coaching position while Urban Meyer was suspended in 2018.

So, I don’t think that Day will keep Justin Fields in the game longer than absolutely necessary tonight. And that will be very charitable of him, but I’m just not sure that it’s going to matter, because the Buckeyes are just exponentially better than Rutgers. So, I’m still calling for a 56-6 OSU victory.

But, whether or not Day is willing to keep his foot on the gas pedal with the backups in will be very important for a certain subset of tonight’s viewers who have a little bit of extra interest in the specific final score of the game.

After some unexpected start and stops, I am back to posting a column every single day from preseason camp until whenever Ohio State’s football season ends. Some days they will be longer and in depth, some days they will be short and sweet. Let me know what you think of this one, and what you’d like to see me discuss in the comments or on Twitter. Go Bucks!