After a big time showdown with Penn State last weekend — which, in hindsight, doesn’t look all that big anymore — Ohio State got a bit of an easier draw this time around, as the Rutgers Scarlet Knights came to town for an under-the-lights battle in the Horseshoe. Greg Schiano made his return to Ohio Stadium with an improved Rutgers squad, but would it be enough to challenge Ryan Day and the Buckeyes on Saturday night?
The short answer is no.
Ohio State absolutely dominated early before taking their foot off the gas in the second half, defeating the Scarlet Knights 49-27. Justin Fields was spectacular yet again, passing for over 300 yards with six total touchdowns. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave were an unstoppable duo as usual, combining for 11 receptions for 168 yards and three TDs.
After jumping out to a 35-3 lead at the half, the Buckeyes kind of put it in cruise control the rest of the way as they moved to 3-0 on the season. Rutgers really threw the kitchen sink at Ohio State, with most of their big chunk yardage coming on trick plays. While the game was certainly never in doubt, there are still a lot of things for this team to clean up moving forward.
Another quick start
A huge reason for Ohio State’s success against Penn State was their ability to get out to a roaring start in Happy Valley. The Buckeyes set the tone with an end around run of 62 yards for Garrett Wilson on the first play of the game, and hopped out to a 14-0 lead in the blink of an eye that had the Nittany Lions on their heels right out of the gate. Against an opponent like Rutgers, you would think you could get out to a similar start.
You would be correct in that line of thinking. The Scarlet Knights tried a little trickery on the opening kickoff on a lateral that started their first possession at the 35-yard line, but after picking up one first down the Silver Bullets got the stop. It didn't take long for the offense to get going, as Master Teague took the first play from scrimmage 25 yards on a run up the middle. A few plays later, Justin Fields hit Jameson Williams for a 38-yard TD. Before you could even pour your first beverage, the Buckeyes held at 7-0 lead.
By the time the first half had come to an close, Ohio State was leading 35-3 and out-gaining Rutgers 353-83. Doesn’t get much more dominant than that.
Establishing the run?
Ohio State is in a stretch of their schedule where they can sort of work any kinks out on both sides of the ball as they look to go on a College Football Playoff run. No offense to Rutgers, but I don't think Ryan Day really came out of the locker room nervous about his team struggling against the Scarlet Knights. The Buckeyes simply have more talent on the field, which gives you the ability to try some things out without feeling like you’re wasting important drives.
However, one area they clearly tried to work on early in the contest was the run game. After struggling to get things going on the ground against Nebraska, Ohio State ran the ball much better last week against Penn State. They very obviously tried to put an emphasis on running the football in the first half, but outside the long run to open the game by Teague, there wasn’t much success to be had. Not counting that play, Teague finished the first quarter with five carries for 12 yards, and Trey Sermon had just one carry for one yard on a questionable play call on 3rd-and-8.
The three best runs of the first half actually came on plays not taken by your typical running backs. Addressing some of their red zone woes from last week, Justin Fields walked in a beautiful 7-yard option keeper for a TD to put the Buckeyes up 14-3 in the second quarter. Later on, Steele Chambers caught the direct snap on a fake punt and ran it 38 yards. We’ll talk about the other nice run in the next segment.
To his credit, Day is trying to find unique ways to run the football when things aren’t going quite as planned. Master Teague does appear to be taking control as RB1, finishing the contest with 60 yards rushing, 37 yards receiving and a TD, but the run game is still not where you would want it to be. Sermon had one big run of 36 yards late in the fourth quarter, but otherwise did not look all that convincing.
Buckeye Nation has waited far too long for Demario McCall to make an impact. Coming to Ohio State as the No. 2 all-purpose back and No. 44 overall prospect in the 2016 class, the speedy H-back just hasn’t been able to carve out a niche for himself throughout his time in Columbus. With a loaded wide receiver room and a bunch of guys ahead of him on the depth chart at RB, it doesn’t look like he’ll be getting too much playing time this season either.
HOWEVER(!), we did get a fun little taste of McCall late in the second quarter, as he showed off some of the skillset that made him such a highly regarded prospect. His first touch of the game came on an outside run, wherein he picked up a nice 12-yard gain. On the very next play, he caught a pass on a crossing route as Fields rolled out of the pocket and turned it into a nice 27-yard gain. It is clear that the speed and the skillset that got him to Ohio State is still there, the staff just has to try and find more ways to use him.
I don't know what more can be said about Justin Fields at this point. Coming into this season a lot of people wondered how he could possibly improve on his first year as a starter in Columbus — you know, the one where he threw for nearly 3,300 yards with 51 total touchdowns and three interceptions. Fields told his coaches and the media all offseason that he felt like he got even better, and all of Buckeye Nation was excited to see him finally take the field once again.
Even with about as lofty expectations as could possibly exist for the starting quarterback at Ohio State, Fields has somehow been even BETTER than advertised. Coming into tonight’s contest, the junior had completed 48 of his 54 pass attempts for 594 yards with seven total TDs — yes, he had more TDs than incomplete passes. Against a Scarlet Knights secondary that has had its struggles this season, this would seem like the perfect night to do some stat padding.
Justin Fields finished the night completing 24 of his 28 pass attempts for 314 yards and five passing TDs with another score on the ground. Fields has now surpassed 50 passing touchdowns in his Ohio State career in just 17 games, climbing to seventh all-time in program history.
Too much laundry
If there is one consistent gripe with Ohio State this season, it has been that they have picked up far too many silly penalties in these first few games. They were relatively clean against Nebraska, with only a trio of flags for 14 yards. Penn State was a different story though, as the Buckeyes racked up a whopping nine penalties for 80 yards. It was more of the same against the Scarlet Knights.
In the first half alone, Ohio State had five penalties for 47 yards. Guard Harry Miller had an especially rough night, as the first-year starter had a trio of holding penalties called against him in the opening half. As one of two new starters along the offensive line, he is still getting used to his new position after moving from center to guard. He is an incredibly smart kid who will get better as the year goes along, so you would rather him work through some of these issues in a runaway game like we saw tonight.
As a whole, the Buckeyes finished the game with nine penalties for 74 yards. Ryan Day will definitely want to clean that up moving forward.
Second half struggles
Ohio State has not played well at all in the second halves of their last two games, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They struggled to stop the passing attack against Penn State in the second half a week ago, and actually lost the latter 30 minutes of that game 19-17 to the Nittany Lions. It was more of the same again tonight, even against a much weaker opponent in Rutgers.
The Buckeyes allowed 24 points to the Scarlet Knights in the final 30 minutes of Saturday’s action. The defensive line got very little pressure, the corners were not sticking to their receivers, and everyone was missing tackles. I’m not sure if they lost interest in the second half after getting out to such a big lead or if Rutgers made some adjustments at the break that allowed them to attack Ohio State, but this defense through three weeks has not exactly been a championship-caliber unit. They will have to be better if they want to compete for a title.