What to watch for as Urban Meyer’s Ohio State football squad heads to the east coast, to play a winnable contest against Rutgers.
Urban Meyer and company travel to New Jersey to take on former assistant Chris Ash and the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. As the start of the Big Ten season arrives, what should you keep an eye on for Ohio State versus Rutgers?
1. Is the Rutgers defense for real?
Rutgers actually ranks higher (28th), than Ohio State (39th) in points per game on defense. Chris Ash himself worked some wonders at Ohio State on defense, a trend that carried on with former Scarlet Knights head coach Greg Schiano. Rutgers is 38th in rushing yards per game and 34th in passing yards per game, so there’s some balance to the way Rutgers has held their opponents in check so far in 2017.
The schedule, though, helps tell the story that those numbers may not be all that they appear. While they did open the season against Washington, Rutgers surrendered 30 points in a loss. After Washington, Rutgers faced Eastern Michigan (16 points in a loss), Morgan State (0 points in a win), and Nebraska (27 points in a loss). Eastern Michigan is one of the worst offenses in the country. Morgan State is an FCS school, and Nebraska is on the verge of firing their head coach. Not exactly a murder’s row in the schedule.
Rutgers isn’t a big play defense either. They have 3 sacks on the entire season. They allowed 201 rushing yards to Nebraska and allowed 478 total yards to Morgan State. They might have lost starting corner and Honorable Mention All Big Ten defensive back Blessaun Austin for the year. The Ohio State offense brings far more talent than other other team Rutgers has faced, save for perhaps Washington and Jake Browning. While the box scores may say Rutgers has a competitive defense, I think Ohio State will prove otherwise.
2. The Rutgers ground game
Gus Edwards paces the Scarlet Knights with 67 total touches, 62 of which have come on the ground. He also leads the team in rushing and total yards with 259 and 282 yards, respectively. The Miami (FL) graduate transfer has been the most effective offensive weapon for Rutgers all season. While the stats tell you back up quarterback Johnathan Lewis leads the team with 4 touchdowns, those all came in garbage time against Morgan State. Edwards averages just over 4 yards per carry and has had at least 56 yards in each game in 2017.
Part of the reason is that starting quarterback Kyle Bolin has been awful this year, leading the 82nd ranked scoring offense in the country. Bolin has 3 touchdowns against 6 interceptions on the year while not yet topping 200 yards passing. Add that all up, and Rutgers ranks 105th in the country in total passing yards. I guess we should temper our criticism of J.T. Barrett, huh?
A big part of the issue is that former stand out Janarion Grant has not been himself since injuring his ankle early in 2016. He’s a big play waiting to happen and looked like a break out star early in 2016, but missed last week’s game against Nebraska with a knee injury. Without a real big play threat and little challenge in the passing game, Rutgers’s already sputtering offense gets a Buckeye defense that is gaining confidence. Rutgers may have only allowed 11 sacks so far in 2017, but that is likely to change.
3. Will more youngsters see time on defense?
Urban Meyer certainly eluded to it in the weekly Big Ten Teleconference, mentioning Baron Browning, Pete Werner, and Jeffrey Odukah by name. All three players saw extended time for a few different reasons last week against UNLV, so it’s worth keeping an eye on the youngsters.
Werner saw time after the score against UNLV was comfortable enough to get the freshman some time. Baron Browning, right after he lost his Black Stripe, saw time on the inside with Chris Worley’s foot injury. When Tuf Borland got elevated to a starter, Browning was needed to provide depth behind him. Ohio State had plenty of opportunity at the linebacker position, so it’s natural for some of these spots to shake out entering conference play.
But the name to keep an eye on is Jeffrey Odukah. The five star recruit had the reputation coming in of being game ready from the get go. Bucknuts / 247 Sports has Odukah as the 8th best prospect to ever come to Columbus, ahead of names like Donte Whitner, Vonn Bell, Braxton Miller, Joey Bosa, and Maurice Clarett. He also happens to play a position of need for the Buckeyes. Aside from Denzel Ward, the Buckeye corners have not lived up to their potential. Kendall Sheffield is a walking pass interference penalty. Damon Arnette has been deliberately thrown at. Shaun Wade isn’t ready. Will Odukah, after earning praise from the head coach, flash against Rutgers?
4. J.T. Barrett Returns to Piscattaway
Flash back to 2015. J.T. Barrett started the season as the number two quarterback behind playoff hero Cardale Jones. He was still nursing an ankle that he broke against Michigan the season before.
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He himself had been pressed into service when Braxton Miller’s shoulder completely failed him and forced a position change. The Buckeye offense sputtered, but Barrett did his job and was a leader on the sidelines.
Then Ohio State traveled to Rutgers in October. The week before, Barrett had gotten Ohio State past Penn State in a relief appearance. Against Rutgers, Barrett assumed the starting role and returned with a vengeance. He recorded five total touchdowns, passing for 223 yards and rushing for another 101. Unfortunately, the next game was the week after Barrett was arrested for a DUI and he lost to Michigan State the next week.
Regardless, at Rutgers is where Barrett helped remind Buckeye fans why he was the best option to lead the team amid a quarterback controversy. Cardale Jones helped win a National Championship, but it was Barrett that got the Buckeyes there. It was Barrett that helped jump start a stagnant offense in the red zone and then later against Michigan and Notre Dame. Will this year’s trip to New Jersey remind 2017 Ohio State fans that Barrett is still the best option at quarterback? I think so.
Rutgers will be a lot like UNLV. The box scores look great, but Ohio State is a different level of competition than what the schedule has offered thus far.
Given Rutger’s inability to move the ball in the air, the Buckeye defense should be able to contain Gus Edwards and win the Time of Possession battle for a change. Final score: Ohio State 42 – Rutgers 9