Do we all feel a little better now?
Good. Because things only get more challenging from here on out.
After a slow start to the season with questions on both sides of the ball, the No. 11 Ohio State Buckeyes finally seemed to get the wheels turning against the Akron Zips last week, securing a 59-7 victory that more than covered an already sizable spread.
But Akron is, of course, in the MAC. The Buckeyes’ final non-conference game of the regular season was a perfect opportunity to get on track before entering the remaining eight-game stretch of conference play starting this week — which kicks off with a much more talented, disciplined and motivated Rutgers Scarlet Knights team than the Buckeyes have ever seen.
Well, I’m glad the Buckeyes are putting the puzzle pieces together
Aren’t we all. For the first time this season, the result of the game was not in doubt heading into the half, with the Buckeyes fixing many of the issues that had ailed them through the first three weeks of play.
The Ohio State defense has had its share of well-documented struggles this season (and dating back to last season). Ryan Day adjusted play calling duties dating back to Ohio State’s matchup against Tulsa, favoring secondary coach Matt Barnes over Kerry Coombs. That shift certainly seems to have worked in Ohio State’s favor, with the Buckeyes holding Akron to 229 total yards on offense and recording two picks.
The offense, meanwhile, which had been running in fits and starts, ran smoothly with two different quarterbacks and a host of running backs. Six rushers ran for a total of 237 yards on the ground, led, as has become the norm this season, by true freshman TreVeyon Henderson.
Ohio State also benefited from being able to rest starters who’d been banged up, like redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud, and get playing time for younger players who will certainly play larger roles later this season and in future years.
While all this is good news, we must temper our excitement and recognize that, yes, the Buckeyes played against a lower level of competition last week. Perhaps, from a scheduling perspective, Ohio State would have preferred to start the season with the Zips and work the kinks out before a high-stakes conference game and a not-quite-as-high-stakes out-of-conference matchup against a tough Oregon squad. But alas, that ship has sailed and, if nothing else, the Buckeyes got a much-needed tune up ahead of conference play against Rutgers.
On that note...
The Buckeyes are 7-0 versus Rutgers all-time. Surprisingly, the pair first faced off in 2014 when the Scarlet Knights joined the Big Ten, never having encountered one another previously. Most recently, the Buckeyes defeated the Scarlet Knights 49-27 in 2020 in the first faceoff between Ryan Day and Greg Schiano. In that matchup, quarterback Justin Fields was nearly perfect, throwing for 314 yards and five touchdowns.
Heading into Saturday, we’ll see some familiar faces from that matchup on the Rutgers side of the ball, including starting quarterback Noah Verdrel and running back Isaih Pacheco.
Ohio State’s largest margin of victory over the Scarlet Knights came in 2016, when the Buckeyes trounced Rutgers 58-0 in Columbus. We can expect the result this year to be somewhat narrower.
Knights of a new order
As you may have gathered, this is not the Rutgers you used to know: the perennial doormat of the Big Ten; the amuse-bouche before the main course of the remainder of conference play. We’ve seen as much in the early weeks of the season. In the second year of head coach Greg Schiano’s second stint with the Scarlet Knights, Rutgers is 3-1, with wins over Temple, Syracuse and Delaware, and a narrow loss to Michigan last week — the team’s best start since 2012.
The Scarlet Knights couldn’t quite make it over the hump against a ranked team in the Wolverines in week four, but they’ll be looking to avoid their second-straight loss when they return home to SHI Stadium Saturday.
On the road again
The Buckeyes hit the road for the first time since their season opener against Minnesota when they head to Piscataway this weekend. And while Rutgers is not exactly known for its fearsome and intimidating crowds, expect more of a home field advantage than we’ve come to know from our easternmost Big Ten brethren.
It looks like Saturday should bring a perfect day of fall weather in New Jersey for the 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff.
Rutgers is 2-0 at home this year, with wins over Temple and Delaware, while Ohio State is 1-0 on the road with its win over the Golden Gophers in week one.
Back to the Big Ten
On the note above, not only is this the Buckeyes’ second road game of the season, it’s also Ohio State’s second conference game of the year. Obviously the Big Ten brings a heightened level of competition compared to what we’ve seen in the last two weeks against Tulsa and Akron, but it also brings a must-win scenario. While the Buckeyes control their own destiny when it comes to the College Football Playoff, there’s little doubt that they’re on thin ice with their loss to Oregon.
However, a loss to a conference opponent would devastate Ohio State’s chances for a CFP run, since it would be a second loss, and would also take the Buckeyes out of the driver’s seat when it comes to making the Big Ten Championship — the surest road to the Playoff.
Let’s roll the tape back...did you say No. 11 Ohio State?
Sure did. For the first time in a long time (2017, to be exact), the Ohio State Buckeyes are not in the top-10 of the AP Poll, and are on the outside looking in at the two Big Ten teams who are now in the top-five of the poll. Penn State edged into the No. 4 spot just ahead of wrestling rival Iowa at No. 5.
Of course, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Buckeyes are scheduled to play Penn State late in October, and could face Iowa in the Big Ten Championship — which could mean a major boost to the ol’ resume should Ohio State emerge unscathed from the matchups.
But before they get to that point, there’s some points Ohio State needs to fine-tune on both sides of the ball.
Not Miller Time
...or McCord Time, for that matter. But it is Stroud Time, though that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
There’s certainly been mutterings of quarterback controversy early this season, though CJ Stroud started for the first three games of the season before resting against Akron. However, Ryan Day stated earlier this week that, assuming he is back and healthy, the redshirt junior would be the starter come Saturday against Rutgers.
That arrangement would seem to be the optimal scenario for Ohio State. Seeing other Ohio State quarterbacks face similar struggles and growing pains like we saw with Stroud feels a little like what we felt when we had replacement refs in the NFL: Even if fans were not 100% thrilled with the on-field performance, we come to understand, when there is less ideal talent put there, that the job is really hard. And that maybe Ryan Day had a reason for playing Stroud all along — because he was the best option.
Young, scrappy and hungry
In other words, keep feeding TreVeyon Henderson. The true freshman running back didn’t need to stay in the game much beyond the first quarter, but he did manage 93 yards and two touchdowns in eight carries.
Henderson has certainly become the favorite No. 1 back, surpassing both Miyan Williams and the veteran Master Teague. Anchored by an improving offensive line, Henderson continues to grow into his role week after week, and will certainly be called upon against a stout Rutgers defense.
One receiver, two receiver, three receiver, MORE!
Chris Olave, Garrett Wilson, Jaxon Smith-Njigba...the list continues. In all, 10 players caught at least one pass for Ohio State last week against Akron, anchored by Wilson, who had four catches for 124 yards.
Of course, the passing game was not the primary source of offense Saturday, and the distribution of catches was made even more impressive by the fact receivers were catching balls from both Kyle McCord and Jack Miller. This stream of talent is yet another reason to give a nod to receivers coach Brian Hartline and the job he’s done in recruiting top talent and bringing in top receiving classes to Columbus.
On the other side of the ball, there’s little doubt that there have been issues at the linebacker position that have come to fruition this year. What was surprising was how some of the frustration came to bear last Saturday on the sideline. The story of the dramatic exit of senior linebacker K’Vaughan Pope was a bizarre example of player frustration boiling over.
Pope’s presence on the field will likely not be missed. He’d recorded three tackles thus far this season. However, Pope was the second linebacker to leave the program in a week, following the departure of Dallas Gant, which of course begs questions of the culture in the linebacker room.
More disturbing, the stories on Ohio State Sunday morning were not about how the team finally seemed to find its stride just in time for the remainder of conference play, but rather about the drama on the sideline. It’s not a good look for a team that’s facing its first questions about Big Ten supremacy in years. And drama is never a good thing.
Surely you remember Greg Schiano, the defensive coordinator and assistant head coach for Ohio State from 2016-18. You probably miss him a lot given the holes we’ve seen on defense this season. However, he’s since moved on to bigger and better things. Schiano is now in his second stint as head coach at Rutgers, having previously coached the Scarlet Knights from 2001-11.
Schiano is clearly the coach the Scarlet Knights need. In his first run, Schiano accrued a 68-67 record. While the end result might not look like much, Schiano inherited a program that had not had a winning season in nearly a decade. He lifted Rutgers from the depths of the college football world to be a competent competitor in the then-Big East conference, leading to his hiring as head coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — an endeavor that didn’t pan out for either party and which landed Schiano at Ohio State on Urban Meyer’s staff. Now, Schiano appears on track to do it again at Rutgers.
It would make sense that Schiano’s teams would be anchored by a solid defensive unit, though the coach was eventually fired from Ohio State for his rather underwhelming defenses in 2017 and 2018.
Through four games, the Scarlet Knights are seventh in the NCAA in scoring defense.
Read it again.
Yes, Rutgers has allowed just 13.5 points per game on average, including just 20 against a Michigan team that, until that point, seemed to be able to score at will. The Scarlet Knights are giving up just under 263 yards per game, including 113 on the ground (39th in the NCAA) and 150 through the air (15th).
Defensive back Max Melton anchored the defensive secondary through the first three games, recording two picks (including one which he returned for a touchdown), a forced fumble and a blocked punt. Of course, Melton, along with fellow defensive back Chris Long, were suspended against Michigan after an incident involving a paintball gun. No word yet on if Melton will return against Ohio State, but the Scarlet Knights will have their hands full with the aforementioned stable of Buckeye receivers.
Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi has been a similar force in the front seven, recording 33 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a forced fumble already this season, earning him spots on all the major defensive player award watch lists.
By the way, Ohio State is 67th in the NCAA in scoring defense, giving up more than 23 points per game.
One and only
Related, Rutgers has not given teams opportunity to capitalize on errors, because the Scarlet Knights simply have not made many errors. In fact, Rutgers has lost just a single turnover this season. Additionally, the Scarlet Knights are among the least penalized teams in the NCAA, with just 14 penalties through four games (tied for fifth).
Painful as it is, we must acknowledge that Ohio State has been much more sloppy in these two categories. For starters, Ohio State has turned the ball over five times this season. The Buckeyes have also had 29 penalties thus far this season, which is tied for 98th in the NCAA.
Close games tend to benefit the team that doesn’t make mistakes. And at this point, it would seem Rutgers is guiltier of fewer mistakes than we’ve seen from Ohio State.
Return to sender
In addition to a stout defense, Rutgers is aided by exceptional special teams play, most recently from return specialist Aron Cruickshank, who was named Big Ten Co-Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance against Delaware, where he had a 62-yard punt return for a touchdown. In all, he has five career return touchdowns. Cruickshank earned the Rodgers-Dwight Return Specialist of the Year honors in 2020 as the top returner in the Big Ten.
Cruickshank joined punter Adam Korsak, who was specialist of the week earlier in the season. Against Syracuse, Korsak had a 52.2-yard average on six punts on the day, which won the field position battle for Rutgers in a close-fought game.
Noah Vedral, Rutgers’ senior quarterback, might not be flashy, but he also doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Vedral has been praised in the last week for the poise he showed in a packed Big House (though we all know that even the Big House at capacity isn’t really that loud…), and his modest, level-headed performance was enough to keep the Scarlet Knights, who entered the game as 20-point underdogs, well in the game.
Vedral certainly didn’t have blockbuster stats in his outing against Michigan, but he had an even-keeled 156 yards on 18-of-31 passing for one touchdown, and added 46 yards on the ground. Verdral’s fumble at the end of the game effectively sealed the victory for Michigan.
In all, Vedral has thrown for 762 yards and five touchdowns this season.
Last time out vs Ohio State, Vedral was 22-of-33 for 168 yards for no touchdowns and no picks.
More moves on the ground
Junior running back Isaih Pacheco came on especially strong in the second half against Michigan last week, rushing for 107 yards on 20 carries — his best performance of the season. He was supported by a strong (and improving) offensive line that held its own against Michigan’s front seven, but that suffered a setback with a season-ending injury to starting right guard Reggie Sutton.
Pacheco leads the Scarlet Knights in rushing so far this season, running for 259 yards and three touchdowns. While he doesn’t put up the big numbers we see from, for example, Ohio State running backs, Pacheco remains the anchor of the Rutgers rushing attack.
In Pacheco’s last outing against the Buckeyes, he was the leading rusher for Rutgers, recording 68 yards on seven carries.
While Ohio State is once again the pick over its newest conference rival, things are certainly becoming a little less comfortable. The Buckeyes opened as 15.5-point favorites over Rutgers. It’s a narrower margin than we’ve seen in years past when facing the Scarlet Knights, but that opening reflects the newfound respect the college football universe has found for Rutgers — especially given that Michigan, another team pundits are hot on, couldn’t cover against Rutgers.
The tighter line makes sense. While the Buckeyes have a lot going for them on offense, especially when assuming a healthy CJ Stroud and the continued play of running back TreVeyon Henderson, they’ll be going against the toughest defense they’ve seen all season — one that has proven more than capable of stopping opposing offenses both on the going and through the air. It’s an unknown for Ohio State, while Rutgers has some data behind its ability to slow talented offenses.
On the other side of the ball, Ohio State certainly has questions outstanding on defense, though things looked better against Akron last week. While Rutgers’ offense could be classified as anemic in their two toughest games of the year (Michigan and Syracuse), they did manage to put up more than 100 points combined against Temple and Delaware. Ohio State would seem, even with their struggles, to have the edge over this offense, but there’s no room for error against one of the most buttoned-up and mistake-free teams in college football.
It’s the first of many must-wins for the Buckeyes, and the first big test since Ohio State fell against Oregon in week two.
Ohio State is undefeated all-time versus Rutgers, but this year brings a new kind of matchup between the teams.