Without question, the unit that has performed the best through four games of the 2017 season is the Rutgers defense. After showing signs of being improved last season, which followed three of the worst statistical defensive campaigns in program history, the unit has shown even more progress so far. The sample size has been small, but the defense has cut down their touchdowns allowed from twelve through four games last season to just six this season. The six includes the gift wrapped, four yard, one play drive by Nebraska after the special teams unit surrendered a 63 yard punt return near the end of the first half last weekend.
How much better the Rutgers defense will end up being in 2017 is still to be determined, but they face their second major test of the season against Ohio State on Saturday. Head coach Urban Meyer had plenty of praise for the defense and his former coordinator, Rutgers head coach Chris Ash:
"They're much better, most improved defense I've seen in the country this year. From last year to this year, they're really, they changed some things how they do business, and I just got done watching four hours of them on film."
"You can see Chris Ash's fundamentals on it and also scheme.”
Meyer is right that the defense has improved and the numbers back that thought up as well. Personally, I'm not going to get too wrapped up in statistics and defensive rankings just four games into the season, especially with one of the opponents Rutgers played being one of the worst FCS teams in the country in Morgan State. However, Keith Sargeant of NJ Advance Media gives a good breakdown of the current statistical rankings for this season versus last year here. Perhaps even more telling is Football Study Hall's Bill Connelly revealing that the Rutgers defense currently ranks 23rd out of 130 FBS teams in defensive S&P+, which measures a team's success rate and equivalent points per play. For a more a detailed explanation, click here.
As well as Rutgers did against Washington on the defensive end in the season opener, the Buckeyes pose a bigger problem, based on them having more weapons on offense to worry about and because of recent history. In the three meetings between Rutgers and Ohio State since 2014, the defense has allowed an eye popping 22 touchdowns and the Buckeyes have scored 163 total points. Rutgers struggles with dual threat quarterbacks and J.T. Barrett certainly has Rutgers to thank for wherever he ultimately finishes in the Ohio State record books after flourishing in their three meetings so far. He has completed 54 of 78 passes for 69%, as well as 722 yards, 10 touchdowns and just 1 interception. In addition, Barrett has rushed for over 100 yards twice and overall has run for 254 yards on 25 carries and 4 touchdowns. If Rutgers wants to perform better than they have previously against Ohio State, they'll have to do a much better job slowing down Barrett. Our David Brown profiled Barrett and what Rutgers needs to do to prevent him from having similar success on Saturday here.
The loss of starting cornerback and All-Big Ten preseason selection Blessuan Austin certainly doesn't help. If there was ever a game for the Rutgers pass rush to come alive, Saturday would be good timing for it to happen. The Scarlet Knights also need to continue to contain the run game, especially early on, or the Buckeyes will dominate the action. Running back Mike Weber, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, is back for this game and will make a dangerous duo along with true freshman J.K. Dobbins, as well as Barrett.
The reality is a major concern entering this season was how Rutgers would do against the elite teams of the Big Ten. After being outscored 224-0 last season against Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Michigan State combined, an obvious way for Rutgers to show progress this season is by performing better against the Big Ten East powers in 2017.
Let's be honest, it's hard to have faith that the offense will put up many points against those teams after scoring just 30 points combined against Eastern Michigan and Nebraska. While special teams play has seen major improvement this season with the performances of the specialists, the punt coverage team has already allowed for two 60+ yard returns. If Rutgers is going to make progress and improve the margin of defeat against the best of the Big Ten, that hope relies on the defense slowing down its opponents. Holding a potent offense like Washington to two touchdowns was a big step in the right direction.
Whether Rutgers can hold Ohio State to a significant lower point total than year's past remains to be seen. If they can, it will mark another step forward for the program in a season where progress is happening, but not showing up in the win-loss record yet. Against Washington and Nebraska, the defense wore down in the second half due to a lack of depth and the offense failing to string together sustained drives. This is, of course, a major concern again in this game.
Saturday’s matchup is a major challenge and with the bye week proceeding this game, it will be a great opportunity for the defense to lay it all on the field against the Buckeyes. With winnable games against Illinois and Purdue next on the schedule, the defense could gain a big confidence boost if they can show progress against Ohio State. Moral victories are not the goal, nor necessarily fun to root for, but if Rutgers can hold the Buckeyes under 40 points, there will be no denying it’s a step forward after the fighting Meyer’s have averaged 54 points a game in the past three meetings. Reducing the margin of defeat against elite opponents is an area that Ash and the staff need to improve on this season. Their first chance to do that against the Big Ten’s best comes Saturday in prime time. Let’s hope they can pass their first test.