I thought once the 2016 schedule was released, the most daunting matchup Rutgers would face this season would be this weekend at Ohio State. This was before Rutgers lost one key starter on both sides of the ball, including one of the best playmakers in program history in Janarion Grant.
The Buckeyes are the most talented team Rutgers will face and they have made a statement early on this season. They haven’t missed a beat, starting 3-0 and are ranked #2 in the polls, despite replacing 15 starters from last year’s 12-1 squad. I figure the Buckeyes are going to be fired up with former co-defensive coordinator Chris Ash and a handful of other former coaches and staffers returning to the Horseshoe with Rutgers this weekend. Of course, old friend Greg Schiano replaced Ash and now is leading a defensive unit that is scoring touchdowns at a historic rate. As if the Buckeye’s needed any more of a physical and emotional edge over Rutgers, they are fresh after their bye week and this game is part of homecoming weekend for Ohio State. Ugh!
In an effort to find out more about Rutgers next opponent ahead of Saturday’s game, I was fortunate to speak with Colton Denning of SB Nation’s Ohio State site, Land Grant Holy Land. He gave some great insight on what it’s like to root for a team coached by Urban Meyer, which opposing players to be aware of in this game, and also spoke on the job Schiano has done replacing Ash as co-defensive coordinator. Let’s dive in.
Despite replacing more than half of their starters from last season, Ohio State hasn't missed a beat. What were the expectations for this team coming into the season? After their dismantling of Oklahoma on the road, is the thought now national championship or bust? Or is that the expectation every season under Urban Meyer?
As far as expectations go, it depends who you ask. Certain portions of the fanbase will always expect Ohio State to go undefeated and win the national championship, regardless of how many contributors from the season before are back. For the most part though, the expectation was to win the Big Ten East and go to the conference championship. I was a bit less optimistic, and thought inexperience, along with playing Oklahoma, Michigan State, and Michigan – plus road night games against Penn State, and Wisconsin – meant three losses. Needless to say, the win at OU re-adjusted those expectations.
Even if the Sooners aren’t a top 5/10 team, rarely do teams go to Norman and win, let alone by 21. After the game, Meyer himself refused to acknowledge the “inexperienced” label on the team going forward. I’d still be really surprised if they’re undefeated at the end of the regular season, but it’s clear that their ceiling is very high.
With Meyer at the helm, it’s not so much expecting a national championship each season, but rather, the realization that it’s a realistic possibility. The last three seasons, they’ve had a legitimate shot at the BCS title/Playoff, something only Alabama can also say. All you can ask for is a chance at the end of each season, and Meyer’s done that.
While I think it’s unfair to call any season that doesn’t end in a national championship a ‘bust,’ they’ve shown enough already that it’ll definitely be a letdown if they aren’t still in playoff contention when they host Michigan to end the regular season.
How has J.T. Barrett improved this season and thoughts on his chances to win the Heisman Trophy?
Barrett seems much more comfortable than he was last season. The ankle injury that ended his 2014 season put him at a bit of a disadvantage in last season’s battle with Cardale Jones for the starting quarterback job, and when he did get in, he never seemed to find a rhythm until the end of the year. Now that he’s the unquestioned starter, it’s been a different story.
He looks calm in the pocket, keeping his eyes downfield to find open receivers, instead of scrambling when his first read isn’t there. In his first two seasons, he had a bit of a problem panicking when defenses brought pressure, and that hasn’t been the case yet in 2016.
As long as Ohio State keeps winning, Barrett will be in the mix for the Heisman. He presents enough of a run threat that his total yardage and touchdown numbers should be among the best in the country. I’m not sure how he’ll overtake Lamar Jackson’s ridiculous numbers though, -- or Christian McCaffrey, if he keeps producing – but a trip to the Heisman ceremony is definitely in the cards if Ohio State’s offense continues to roll.
Does Noah Brown have a chance to be the best receiver during Urban Meyer's tenure so far?
I don’t think so, but he has a chance to be the most well-rounded receiver since Meyer’s arrival in Columbus. As a freshman, Brown was mostly known for his devastating blocks, and he earned a ton of praise during 2015’s fall camp, before breaking his leg and missing the season.
Now that he’s back, it’s easy to see what everyone was talking about. Brown’s four-touchdown game versus OU –including the awesome hug TD – hinted at what he can be going forward. To reach the level of guys like Michael Thomas and Devin Smith, though, that production needs to be more consistent.
Thomas and Smith were great for different reasons, but were reliable, go-to receivers for the offense when they needed them. As of now, Brown is a great redzone threat, but he could stand to be more of a factor on a per-down basis.
What he does bring though, is the ability to block, to go along with his receiving skills. Standing 6’2 and 218 pounds, Brown is solidly built, and has a history of crushing defenders. So, while he may not yet be as consistent as Thomas and Smith were, his versatile game allows Ohio State to use him in more situations.
What other playmakers on offense should Rutgers fans be worried about on Saturday?
Curtis Samuel and Mike Weber. Before last week's bye, they were 1-2 in the conference in rushing, both topping six yards per carry. Weber is built more like a traditional running back, and has been impressive so far in replacing Ezekiel Elliott. For a redshirt freshman,he's got good vision, and isn't afraid to run defenders over if need be. Weber's hovered around the 20-carry mark in each game this season, and that shouldn't change against Rutgers.
Rutgers fans are probably familiar with Samuel, due to his recruitment and attending high school in Brooklyn. He’s lived up his billing as a playmaker, and is by far Ohio State’s most dangerous threat on offense. Samuel’s emerged as the do-everything player that Meyer covets in his offense, and has even taken a couple snaps out of the wildcat in each game this season. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Samuel get another 15 or so touches on Saturday, and break two or three of them for big gains.
How has Greg Schiano's transition gone in replacing Chris Ash? Has he gelled with Luke Fickell in co-defensive coordinator roles? Is Ash missed at all?
Schiano’s transition replacing Ash has been about as smooth as one could expect. Say what you want about him as a head coach, but he’s been great as a co-defensive coordinator so far.
The defense has been a bit more aggressive than last year’s, and have already forced 11 turnovers, compared to 21 in 2015. This is especially true for the back seven, as the Buckeyes have already scored four defensive touchdowns.
Opponents have had some success generating big plays on standard downs, but other than that, Schiano and Fickell have crafted a defense that limits large gains, and is also efficient. They’ve kept opponents out of the end zone the rare times they’ve had chances to score, and consistently given the offense good field position. Through three games, Ash isn’t missed, but I don’t think that’s because he was doing anything wrong.
With so many of its stars now in the NFL – along with Ash’s exit -- it was reasonable to expect Ohio State’s defense to take a big step back. Maybe it will as the year goes on, but they’ve looked very impressive so far. The secondary is more aggressive, but that’s really the only noticeable difference. Schiano and Fickell are making the most of the high-level talent that they have, just like I’m sure Ash would have done if he was still in Columbus.
Who have been the standouts on defense so far this season?
I could name five or six players here, but we’ll stick with two. First, safety Malik Hooker is the obvious answer, what with his sick interceptions. Only a redshirt sophomore, Hooker is a valuable for not only his range in coverage, but also his willingness to come into the box in run support, even making plays behind the line of scrimmage. Hooker is tied for the team lead in tackles, has 1.5 tackles for loss, a half sack, three interceptions, and two other passes broken up. Not bad for a redshirt sophomore. It’s reasonable to think he could be a first-round pick after this season, despite only one full year of playing time.
Secondly, middle linebacker Raekwon McMillan continues to the rock for the defense. With so many new starters around him, his presence has been invaluable. There’s nothing flashy about his game, but McMillan is sound against the run, and can stay on the field in third down situations. He’s tied with Hooker for the team lead in tackles, and his lived up to every bit of the 5-star billing he came to Columbus with.
Time for a prediction, how big of a blowout do you expect on Saturday?
I think Ohio State wins easily, but not like they have in their first two games against the Scarlet Knights. Ash knows this offense -- and its personnel -- too well to get run out of the building. He’ll find ways to attack Ohio State’s running game on standard downs, and force Barrett and the wide receivers to make plays early in drives.
That being said, I don’t think Rutgers’ offense can capitalize on the defense’s success. Ohio State should be able to load the box and stop the run, leading to third and longs, which isn’t ideal against this secondary. Ultimately, I think Rutgers’ inability to sustain drives will lead to short fields for the Buckeyes’ offense, and a tired Scarlet Knights defense.
I’ll guess the Buckeyes win 34-10, but there’ll be enough positives for Rutgers fans to feel good about where Ash is taking the program going forward.