Rutgers entered their Big Ten East opener hosting the Ohio State Buckeyes as a 30 point underdog. The night game was not a “blackout” and the fan base seemed nervous as kickoff approached. After a stingy first quarter effort by the defense and an early insertion of Johnathan Lewis, the atmosphere was that of a true Big Ten contest. After that things started to fall apart, accelerated by injuries to several defensive starters. Here are some rapid reaction postgame thoughts on Rutgers’ sixteenth consecutive Big Ten loss, 56-0.
The Drive That Summed it Up
With Rutgers trailing 14-0 in the second quarter, there was still excitement in the stadium despite a tipped INT to halt a potential RU scoring drive previously. Rutgers defense was fired up looking to force their fourth punt of the game and had Ohio State facing a 3rd and 17 from their own 30. Rather than run a dive play like many other teams in the country, Ohio State called a pass. Rutgers had 7 men in coverage but the two linebackers were too close to one another and not near any eligible receiver on the strong side of the formation. With Barrett rolling out to the weak side and no one between him and the first down marker 20 yards away, Isaiah Wharton looked to the backfield. K.J. Gray playing free safety opted to help inside leaving Wharton alone on an island down the sideline. Wharton likely hoped Gray would help him instead and as a result Ohio State’s Johnnie Dixon was wide open for a 70 yard score.
After that it seemed every opportunity for RU ended up bouncing to OSU like a Ryan Anderson punt that hit one of the OSU’s players down the sideline but was subsequently recovered by the Buckeyes. And then muffing a punt at their own 5, which OSU also recovered at their own 2 yard line. Let’s hope the breaks even out against Illinois and Purdue up next.
Ouch, Defense Adjusts then runs out of gas
Before the game, Rutgers best player Janarion Grant was ruled out for the second week in a row. Then after losing their best defensive player, cornerback Blessuan Austin, for the season last week, starting safety Kiy Hester went down early in this game. Prior to the injury, Rutgers defense was having some success with their three safety package with Saquon Hampton, Hester, and Gray sharing the field at times. Swapping converted strong-side linebacker Ross Douglas and Gray in and out kept both players fresh and that option was removed after the injury.
Then Hampton was injured as well. Rutgers was forced to play Gray at one safety spot and walk-on Zane Campbell at the other. Campbell was already pressed into duty last week as the nickel cornerback thus forcing Rutgers to completely abandon sub-packages altogether. Ross Douglas’s versatility was on display the rest of the way as he played as his normal strong side linebacker spot, nickel corner, and the game planned 3rd safety.
Later in the game after a long run by Barrett, Deonte Roberts was crack back blocked on a play that even 5 years ago, would have potentially been a good play by the Ohio State receiver. It resulted in a penalty after there was helmet to helmet contact.
Offense started out ...
Overmatched on the first two drives. Play calling didn’t matter much on the first two drives as the Ohio State defensive line was just shoving the RU offensive line into the backfield it seemed. Then after the Rutgers special teams was able to flip field position, RU took over at the Buckeye 43.
Coach Kill inserted Lewis into the game at quarterback and with some help from Robert Martin, the Knights had a First down and 10 from the Buckeye 15 yard line looking to tie it up. After Lewis was halted, not tackled as the play was blown dead as 5 defenders could not drag him to the ground, Rutgers looked to pass on second down. Lewis’s pass was deflected at the line of scrimmage yet still found it’s way to the hands of Jawuan Harris. Harris was unable to adjust in time and the ball ricocheted directly (and I mean directly) into the arms of the help defender for Lewis’s first career interception thrown. After that, Lewis was less effective against the OSU starters who adjusted under Greg Schiano’s guidance on the sidelines.
Speaking of Special Teams ...
They were average. There were some good moments, but there were mistakes also. Luckily Rutgers was able to avoid catastrophe which in itself is progress. Rutgers almost recovered the aforementioned two punts as Rutgers is starting to figure out how to use Ryan Anderson’s incredible leg. Anderson only had one punt below his standards, but it came on a snap by true freshman snapper Billy Taylor that Anderson had to pick off the turf. Punt coverage was as good as could be expected, though not awesome by any stretch.
Andrew Harte missed a 32 yard field goal on his only attempt that would have avoided the shutout with less than a minute to go in the game. As a result, kickoff coverage only had one opportunity, and a missed tackled allowed the Buckeyes good field position. This was not a complete breakdown though as secondary cover men halted the return on the sideline and OSU began their first drive at their own 36. Luckily the RU defense was able to dig in and force a punt.
Punt return and kickoff return really miss Janarion Grant. The long return was only 15 yards with Raheem Blackshear fielding one that almost resulted in a safety and Damon Mitchell catching one at the two yard line where his knee looked to be down before he gained 14 yards. Luckily the call was upheld even after review. It seems on kickoffs despite the attempts to use younger players, the team’s best chance without Grant is to use senior Josh Hicks. On punts, Hunter Hayek is simply there to fair catch at this point.
If you compare it to last year’s game, this was almost a carbon copy. In 2016, OSU led 6-0 after the first quarter. In 2017, it was 7-0 after one quarter. In 2016, Rutgers defense was holding up in the second quarter until defensive leader Greg Jones was lost to injury. In 2017, Kiy Hester and Saquon Hampton were lost in the second quarter before things got out of hand. Even the final score was almost identical. A home game showed two points of improvement on the scoreboard compared to a season ago, but anyone who watched Ohio State closely knows the 2017 team is significantly better than the 2016 version.
The big difference for Rutgers came on offense where a year ago Rutgers only completed two passes. Despite constant pressure, RU completed 11 today and rushed for 34 more yards than last year in Columbus. It may not sound like much, but this is still improvement. Ohio State’s team speed is incredible, maybe the best in the nation and Rutgers will not face anything close to it the rest of the year.
A Good Effort By
K.J. Gray. Normally the team’s 3rd safety, the true sophomore was forced to play virtually every down. I personally have been critical of Gray in the past, mostly because of his potential. He did a more than adequate job today when put in a tough spot. Hopefully he can build on this performance of 7 tackles including a sack.
Honorable mention goes to Zane Campbell. Two weeks ago, Campbell was a seldom used walk-on dime cornerback for a team that rarely uses that sub package. Last week he saw action as the third corner and this week was lined up against 5 star recruits on the perimeter. After the injuries. he was thrust into an every down role at safety, where he had never played meaningful game snaps at RU ever before.
Fan moment of the game: Down 7-0 and driving down the field behind true freshman quarterback Johnathan Lewis, there was some buzz in the stadium. After a tipped ball resulted in an INT, the air didn’t completely go away as the fans recognized the potential of Lewis both in this game and beyond.
Overall, there were some encouraging moments, but Rutgers lack of depth ultimately let this get out of hand. The biggest thing Rutgers needs to do to even stay competitive with powerhouse programs is get better at the line of scrimmage. Early in this game, you could tell the Scarlet Knights had faced nothing close in 2017 (even against Washington) compared to the Ohio State offensive and defensive lines. RU was able to adjust for a short while before they were completely worn down.
BOX SCORE (espn)
UP NEXT: Rutgers has a bye before returning to action on October 14 at Illinois.