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Column: Looking back at five key factors in Ohio State’s win over Rutgers

I told you the five things that I was going to watch, and here’s what I saw.

Rutgers v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images
Matt Tamanini Matt Tamanini is the co-managing editor of Land-Grant Holy Land having joined the site in 2016.

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.

Let me start this thing off by saying that I was very disappointed with the way that Ohio State played on Saturday night. I thought that there were way too many areas in which the Buckeyes looked average at best, and some where it was far worse than that.

However, I do not think that a 49-27 victory over Rutgers indicates that they are a terrible team. I do not believe that it indicates that they are destined to be embarrassed by Clemson or Alabama should they play them in the playoff. I do not believe that upcoming games against Maryland and Indiana are all of a sudden incredibly dangerous. They are still very much a title contender. This season has been — and will continue to be — all kinds of weird, and that has impacted every team in the country, the Buckeyes are no exception.

Do I think that there are areas in which Ohio State will need to improve down the stretch? Yep. But, I believe that many of the issues that the team is currently experiencing can be remedied by simply getting more time together. Position groups in which new players are being worked into highly intricate schemes, or veterans are expected to change positions, didn’t have the benefit of normal spring, summer, and fall work, and are therefore behind where they would be had they gotten that time to gel and work together. In the most team sport of all, this is incredibly important.

Think about it this way, OSU has played three games thus far in the season; while it is a third of the way through the schedule in 2020, that would have just been the non-conference slate in a normal season. But, even beyond that, they are playing catch up because of all of the time lost due to COVID. So, I would imagine that the development in the team’s less experienced areas is closer to finishing a regular fall camp that it is being 33% through the slate.

I will have more on what ails the Buckeyes this week, but let’s get into the things that I was watching for on Saturday night.

1) Justin Fields’ Heisman campaign

The most positive thing to come out of Saturday night’s game as the continued near perfection of Justin Fields. He went 24-for-28 for 314 yards and five touchdowns, plus a sixth one on the ground. He has now completed 86.7% of his passes on the season, which is the best in the country for any QB who has played more than one game. And, his quarterback rating of 222.38 is also best amongst QBs who’ve played multiple games.

I don’t know how voters will look at Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence missing the past two games (or if he will even be back next week), and Alabama’s Mac Jones is having a heck of a season, but if Fields can continue to have more TDs than incompletions, it is going to be difficult to give the Heisman to anyone but him.

It seems hyperbolic to say things like this, but it is becoming very clear that Fields is the best QB in Ohio State history, and while winning a Heisman or a national title would obviously help cement that, the stats that he is putting up and the throws that he is putting on film are otherworldly. Watching Justin Fields play is an absolute delight that we should not take for granted, even in an ugly, way-too-close game against Rutgers.

2) Running back depth

Here’s the thing, it’s time for the OSU offensive coaching staff to go back to the drawing board when it comes to the running back rotation. Despite the fact that he outgained Master Teague on the same number of carries last night, Trey Sermon just seems out of sorts when it comes to running in this offense.

He theoretically thrives on outside runs where he can get into space, but even on his big 36-yard gain on Saturday night, he was caught from behind on what should have and oculd have been a touchdown. While Teague has not been the type of game-breaker that J.K. Dobbins was last year either, he has proven to be effective when asked to do what he does best, run vertically between the tackles.

As I’ve said before, I don’t think that OSU needs a dominant running game this year because of how incredible the passing attack can be. However, having someone who can consistently pick up yards certainly provides the defense something to contend with in addition to the near perfection of Fields’ game.

That being typed, I also don’t think that the Buckeye running game has to settle for “just enough to not be embarrassing.” I think that there are other backs on the roster that can provide some dynamism if given the opportunity. In my Saturday piece, I advocated for Steele Chambers to get a hefty number of carries, and while he had 46 yards against Rutgers, 38 of those were on the fake punt. He also fumbled in the fourth quarter. But, I think that the sparks that he has shown have warranted at least an extended opportunity to prove whether or not he can bring an extra dimension to the running game.

Then there is the eternal conundrum of what to do with Demario McCall. I have long been on the Demario Hype Train, and — other than the fact that he is tiny and would be useless in pass blocking — have never understood why he hasn’t gotten more opportunities to contribute. Yes, he has had turnover issues in the past, but those have been most notably in the punt return game. So, even if it is out of the H-back position, as opposed to tailback, I think that McCall would absolutely bring another explosive element to the offense, and he can’t be any worse than what we’re seeing now.

Finally, there’s Marcus Crowley, who was coming on as an exciting contributor in the latter stages of the 2019 season before tearing his ACL against Maryland. He was reportedly recovering well in the offseason, but suffered a “minor setback” in camp that has kept him out of action thus far this season. However, he apparently was in uniform on Saturday night, so perhaps his return could be imminent, adding another quality option to the Buckeye backfield.

Either way, the fact remains that the OSU coaches appear to be trying to fit square pegs into round holes when it comes to the running game. The quicker that they can start looking at different shaped pegs and/or holes, the better they will be in terms of finding some sort of complement to their elite passing attack.

3) Brendon White

Former Buckeye Brendon White did not have a huge impact on the game last night as Fields essentially carved up the Rutgers secondary. White did have four tackles, but three of them were in run support. But, given the tackling and coverage issues that the OSU secondary had, I couldn’t help but think about what having him in the back of the defense would look like this year.

As the Rose Bowl MVP at the end of the 2018 season, White proved that he was a talented, strong, and intelligent DB and at the time, I thought that he looked like he was destined to continue the long line of OSU’s BIA safeties. That obviously didn’t work out when Day brought in Greg Mattison and Jeff Hafley last year to revamp the Buckeye defense.

Obviously we can’t know what would have happened, but I do wonder if White would have hung around Ohio State had he known that Hafley would head to Boston College after the postseason and that Kerry Coombs — who was on the staff during White’s freshman season — would be coming back to Columbus to oversee the DBs.

The OSU secondary is one of the most glaring issues facing the team right now, and Marcus Hooker and Josh Proctor have been hit or miss, especially when it comes to tackling. So, I admit that my mind was wandering to what might have been during Saturday night’s contest as Rutgers ripped off another annoyingly big gain.

4) Quarterback rotation

LOL. Because this game was obnoxiously close, C.J. Stroud got in for one whole play — a handoff. I suppose that does prove my theory correct from Saturday’s column, that Day is still going to rotate the freshmen backups, but it sure would have been nice if Stroud and/or Jack Miller III had gotten more than a single snap against Rutgers.

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

<sigh> I mean it really serves me right. I am not someone who thinks that fans or media need to “take things one game at a time,” or “respect every opponent,” because what I think or say has zero impact on the actual outcome of the game. But, my “Five Things to Watch” article on Saturday was very much centered around the idea that Rutgers would be nothing but a speed bump in Ohio State’s season, and I consider the lackluster performance by the Buckeyes to be a direct, cosmic rebuke of my cavalier approach to this specific game.

And for that, I apologize, friends.

So, not only did Day not even have the chance to run up the score, Schiano made this thing painfully close (by Rutgers standards) for most of the second half. Now, I do believe that a lot of what we saw in the second half on Saturday night essentially was caused by OSU retreating inside a turtle shell when it came to play-calling on both sides of the ball, but that doesn’t mean that it was not obnoxious to watch.

So, I guess we got the answer. Up 35-3 at half, the Buckeyes were outscored 24-14 after the break, so Ryan Day, most definitely did not run up the score on Greg Schiano. Great.

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!