Alright, once you stop laughing, please hear me out. I wrote a similar article before we took #4 Michigan State to the brink a couple weeks ago. I also predicted a heartbreaking loss, which it turned out to be. So where does this team stand two weeks later? Rutgers has come out of their bye week and have proven to be a different team than they were in September. Ohio State are the defending national champions and the #1 ranked team in the country. Advanced stats and the Vegas line think the Buckeyes should win by close to three touchdowns. With the risk of sounding crazy, here are ten reasons to believe Rutgers can actually beat Ohio State on Saturday.
Confidence at an all-time high
Heading into the Michigan State game, Rutgers had just turned the page on the most tumultuous month in program history. Their coach was suspended and their best player was cleared from his own suspension just two days before the game. They were coming off a lackluster performance against Kansas, in what ESPN dubbed the worst power 5 game of the season. This was all after a crushing loss at home to Washington State, getting embarrassed by Penn State, and their secondary being decimated by arrests and dismissals. This team was able to put all of that baggage behind them, came out and played their best game of the season against the Spartans. Yes, they failed on the last drive of the game and quarterback Chris Laviano made the infamous spike on 4th down. But we saw much needed progress.
Laviano has become a leader of this team, following up that performance with a clutch, come from behind victory last week against Indiana. Senior Nate Sudfeld is leading the Big Ten in passing efficiency and played the best game of his career for the Hoosiers against Rutgers. And yet Laviano outplayed him in the 4th quarter, which was the difference in the game. They tied their biggest comeback in program history, all while losing starters Leonte Carroo, Davon Jacobs, Kiy Hester, Blessuan Austin and Steve Longa for parts of, or all of the second half. Five starters go down and yet they emerged victorious in Indiana and appear to have turned a corner. Of course, the health of those players for this game is of critical importance. With this team playing at home in primetime on national television before a sellout crowd against #1 Ohio State, there is one thing for sure. Their confidence and their belief in each other is as strong as ever.
They have dealt with pretty much every type of adversity imaginable so far this season, arguably more than any college football team in the country. The national media have called this team a "dumpster fire", "train wreck" and "laughingstock", all before October. They haven't wavered in their belief that they can win any game as long as they stick together. Ohio State is a team they undoubtedly respect, but I don't think they fear them. Not like last year, when they visited the Horseshoe and were way over their heads in their first real Big Ten road game, resulting in a 39 point loss. Once you deal with so many problems and issues off the field, a team with the right mindset starts to simplify the game on the field. They don't come close to the talent of the Buckeyes, but their will and mindset should give them a chance.
Sunday Ruminations #Rutgers You go 2 practice can't help leaving thinking how mentally tough a team this is - they prove it again yesterday— Gerry DiNardo (@gerrydinardo) October 18, 2015
J.T. Barrett was named the starting quarterback this week and that could be a bad thing for Rutgers. He torched the defense last season and is playing at a higher level than former starter Cardale Jones right now. However, Barrett is a more of a run option quarterback, not a deep threat passer. Rutgers is currently ranked 30th in the country in run yards allowed per game at 126.2. I know the argument that these numbers are skewed because we haven't faced many run dominant teams. Rutgers has played a great passing team in Washington State and the two best passing quarterbacks in the Big Ten, Connor Cook of Michigan State and Nate Sudfeld of Indiana. However, Michigan State and Indiana like to run the ball too and Rutgers out-rushed both teams.
Our lack of depth and experience in the secondary is our defense's biggest weakness. Health is also an issue in the secondary this week with Blessuan Austin and Davon Jacobs listed as questionable. Our linebacking core is undoubtedly the strength of the defense and has done a good job of limiting big runs this season. I am not saying we will stop the combination of Ezekiel Elliott and Barrett. I am just making the point we are better equipped personnel wise to try and stop the run, then face a team that will throw the majority of the time.
Last week, the special teams had major issues with having two extra point attempts blocked. However, they did score a touchdown on the muffed punt and Kyle Federico was able to hit the game winning field goal. Janarion Grant has three touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns for the season, the only player in the country to do so. His availability for this week is up in the air as well, but if he plays, that automatically makes Grant a threat. For the season, Rutgers is ranked 5th in the country for special teams efficiency. What Rutgers has done better than any team in the country for almost a decade is block kicks. The last three night games at home against Penn State, Michigan, and Michigan State, Rutgers has blocked a kick. We have averaged four blocks a season since 2009 but only have one so far this year. It is inevitable that another block is coming Saturday. It's only a matter of when it happens and what impact it has on the game.
Road Test for Ohio State
Ohio State has had two significant road games so far, against Virginia Tech and Indiana. Versus the Hokies they were losing at halftime before the opposing starting quarterback left with a broken collarbone. The Buckeyes asserted their dominance and took over after that. In Bloomington, the Hoosiers gave Ohio State everything they could handle, losing by a touchdown with a chance to tie it on their last drive. Indiana lost Sudfeld early in the game and by the end was down to their third string quarterback, on top of their top running back Jordan Howard sitting out as well. And Indiana still almost won! Complain about the defense all you want, but Rutgers took Sudfeld's best shot and beat him. Injuries are a concern this weekend for Rutgers as five key players are listed as questionable. If the majority can play, Rutgers should be as tough a test on the road as Ohio State has had all season.
Home field advantage
In 2012, Rutgers lost a soul crushing title game for the right to play in the Sugar Bowl against Louisville. In 2013, Rutgers came from behind to beat Arkansas at home. In 2014, they outplayed Penn State but lost in heartbreaking fashion, only to beat Michigan in a thriller later that season. This season, there was the aforementioned Michigan State heartbreaker. While they lost three of those games, they played tough in all of them and took their opponents to the brink. The rest of the Big Ten may not realize it yet, but playing at Rutgers is becoming a difficult road game. The team was obviously fired up two weeks ago for the "blackout" against the Spartans. With the first sellout of the season against OSU, it's safe to say "the Birthplace" will be rocking and the team will come out ready to play. Will Highpoint Solutions Stadium be "the best environment in college football" come Saturday night, as coach Kyle Flood said it was this week? Maybe, but he also knows how vital the home crowd has been to his team playing so well against top competition. Flood is motivating our crowd as well as his players this week.
Laviano has made great strides the past two weeks. Robert Martin is emerging and Paul James is rounding back into form in the backfield. Andre Patton and Carlton Agudosi are finding themselves in the offense. Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels is growing as a play caller, finding ways to get everyone involved. Janarion Grant finally had wide receiver screens called for him last week. And Leonte Carroo is proving he is one of the best receivers in the country, let alone the Big Ten. They proved they could run on Michigan State and proved they could put together a game winning drive against Indiana. The next step is putting it all together against the #1 team in the country.
Late Down Efficiency
Rutgers is 1st in the Big Ten and 10th nationally in third down efficiency, converting on 48.7% for the season. They are 6 for 10 on fourth down conversions this season. Granted, they haven't faced a defense of the caliber of Ohio State except for Penn State, which did not go well. At the same time, the offense is finding a balance with emerging playmakers in both the backfield and receiving core. They are more difficult to gameplan against as McDaniels now has multiple options to go to. It's a different offensive unit then it was a month ago. Continuing to convert on third down at a high percentage will be a major key to Saturday's game.
2002 game against #1 Miami
For those of you that don't remember, Rutgers went 1-11 in 2002. It was only the second season of the Greg Schiano era, so he was just getting the reclamation project going. However, Rutgers hosted the defending national champions and #1 ranked Miami Hurricanes for the ninth game of that season. They played their hearts out and entered the 4th quarter leading Miami 14-13. There was no fairytale ending that day, as Miami reeled off four unanswered touchdowns to win 42-17. However, one of the worst Rutgers teams in history gave one of the best teams ever a run for their money at home. Miami had prior trouble putting teams away during that season, sound familar? Ironically, that Miami team went on to lose in double overtime of the national championship game to...Ohio State. The point is that game should give Rutgers fans hope anything is possible, and our program is light years ahead of where it was that day.
Leonte the Great
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer referred to Carroo this week as an NFL player. For his career, he has 28 touchdowns in 27 games. He has been unstoppable on the field this season. He is the best receiver in the Big Ten and one of the best in the country. Carroo is listed as questionable after spraining his ankle against Indiana. Carroo vowed to play this week and Flood indicated while he has yet to practice, Carroo is showing improvement. He only practiced twice before the Michigan State game, after a 25 day break during his suspension, and tied career highs with 7 receptions and 3 touchdowns. The bottom line, when Carroo is on the field, Rutgers will always have a chance to win. After everything he has been through this season, there is no chance he isn't playing this week. With an opportunity to shine on the national stage against the #1 team in the land, Carroo has the ability to put this Rutgers team on his back and lead them to glory.
Will the perfect storm come together for Rutgers on Saturday to shock the nation against the defending champs? Or will the Buckeyes storm through New Jersey and leave our team a wreck? Only time will tell, but until then, know one thing. Rutgers has a chance.