Rutgers football heads to Columbus, Ohio facing a tall task this weekend, as they take on the #4 Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten opener for both teams. The average score in the previous four meetings between them has been 55-6 in favor of Ohio State. In fact, Rutgers hasn’t scored any points against them since Hayden Rettig threw a touchdown pass with 13 seconds left in the fourth quarter game in 2015, which was the only score of that forgettable night. There is legitimate reason to believe that Rutgers will put up more of a fight this time around, but how good is Ohio State in 2018?
Obviously, it’s been just one game into the season, but the Buckeyes look as good as ever after blowing out Oregon State 77-31 last weekend. To find out more about this team, I was fortunate to speak with Matt Tamanini, co-managing editor of SB Nation’s Ohio State site, Land Grant Holy Land. Here is what Matt had to say regarding this year’s team and what Rutgers fans can expect heading into this matchup.
AB: The controversy around the program had little effect in the season opener. Aside from Urban Meyer not returning to coach on gameday until the fourth contest, is this team beyond any negative effects from it or can it have a longer term impact that may show up later in the season?
MT: I think that we will know more about the true ramifications of Urban Meyer’s suspension after this week’s game. Since he was gone from the team for over a month, it essentially became interim head coach Ryan Day’s show. So, in that situation, the team heard only one voice and could take the time to band together in a somewhat misguided “Buckeyes vs. The World” mentality. So, I actually think that on a motivational level, it likely helped. However, being without one of the best coaches of this or any generation is never a good thing.
However, on Monday, Urban Meyer was allowed to return to the team Sunday through Friday (which is one of the dumbest cop-outs of a punishment I can think of), so I am more worried about how the team will react now than I was when Meyer was completely absent. In fairness though, the coaching stuff is so strong and prepared, I don’t think that there will be a huge let down on game days without Meyer. After all, he is not actually a great in-game coach, and is pretty hesitant to make adjustments to his gameplan.
My only real concern is the fact the team will have to adjust to having Meyer run the show during the week, to having Day calling the shots on Saturdays. Again, I don’t think that will be a major issue, but if there is a suspension-related problem, I think that would be it.
AB: Dwayne Haskins set records in his first start last week. What are his strengths, weaknesses and does he actually have a higher ceiling long term than J.T. Barrett?
MT: Without a doubt, Dwayne Haskins has a higher ceiling that J.T. Barrett, but he likely also has a lower floor as well. The difference will be if the coaching staff is able to call plays to keep him out of unnecessary bad situations. Haskins is more or less the polar opposite of Barrett. The latter was a run-first, risk-averse QB with a limited arm and questionable accuracy. Barrett succeeded— and he succeeded a lot— thanks to his grit, game IQ, and surprising athleticism.
Like Barrett, over the past season-plus, Haskins has also proven to be a phenomenal decision-maker, but that is far more with his arm than his legs. He is also supremely confident, and could become victim of thinking that his arm strength is enough to force balls into situations that he shouldn’t.
Though he didn’t throw deep much against Oregon State in Week 1, there was an obvious increase in zip on his ball, but more importantly an impressive increase in accuracy. Haskins routinely hit receivers in stride— especially on crossing routes--, allowing them to turn up field and pick up extra yards. I know that sounds like a pretty basic thing to expect from a quarterback, but it is not something that Ohio State fans have been used to seeing in the past decade or so.
Haskins thankfully did not have a single designed-run called for him on Saturday, and he only went deep once. That last is partly because Oregon State’s defense was usually conceding the underneath routes, but also because deep incompletions slow down the tempo that Ryan Day wants to play with.
This also means that the chances of Haskins forcing a ball into a situation that he shouldn’t are diminished. If Day can keep Haskins working in rhythm where he can make quick throws giving his skill position players opportunities to pick up chunks of yards, he is very dangerous as a quarterback.
AB: Ohio State appears loaded at running back once again with Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins. How are they both used and how are they different?
MT: If you would have asked me this in the middle of last season, I would have given some version of the tired, old “Thunder and Lightning” cliche, implying that Mike Weber was the between-the-tackles bruiser, and J.K. Dobbins was the elusive speed-back. However, in the final quarter of 2017, Weber started showing a new found burst that came with finally being healthy and in shape. Where in the past he always seemed to be a shoelace away from breaking big gains, he started actually breaking big gains and running away from defenders, as he did to a career-high 186 rushing yards against the Beavers.
He is still more of a north-south runner, while Dobbins has more moves, but they have both proven to be quick, durable backs. How it appears that Day (who is also the offensive play-caller) is going to handle them is to, more or less, rotate them by series, rather than play. This fits in well with what I mentioned about Haskins not throwing deep; when an offense substitutes, it slows down their opportunities to play with pace.
So, I would expect in the early going of games, Dobbins and Weber will rotate possessions evenly, but as it becomes more clear how defenses are going to play each, they will likely go with the hot hand; as they did against Oregon State.
AB: Greg Schiano’s defense gave up some big plays and 31 points to Oregon State. Was it a matter of Ohio State losing interest aside from the 1st quarter TD in leading by so much or are there real issues in the secondary? Is Jordan Fuller expected to return from injury?
MT: I definitely don’t think it had anything to do with losing interest, because the back-seven of the defense looked pretty bad from start to finish. Yes, missing Jordan Fuller, a team captain and one of the few defenders with experience outside of the line, played a big part in that. I think a lot of the big plays that the D gave up came from linebackers and DBs over-pursuing and getting caught out of position, or taking poor angles to ballcarriers. The linebackers and the defensive backs are the two youngest position groups on the team, both replacing multiple players now in the NFL, so it will likely take some time for the new players to be comfortable. However, coaches always say that the biggest improvements come between games 1 and 2, so I would imagine that Schiano, co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Alex Grinch, and cornerbacks coach Taver Johnson will get those guys ready to go.
The linebackers on the other hand, I am less confident in. They were the weakest unit on the team last year, and their coach, former NFL defensive coordinator Bill Davis, has not shown much ability to get them ready during his time in Columbus. So, it will be incumbent on the defensive line to get pressure on Artur Sitkowski, and for the DBs to make tackles on the inevitable screen passes.
I would not be surprised to see Fuller back, at least in limited duty this weekend. He was a game-time decision against Oregon State, so that would seem to indicate that if it was the national championship game as opposed to the season opener, he likely would have been on the field. If his treatment goes well this week, I would imagine that the coaching staff would like to get him some reps in the Big Ten opener, especially after the younger players looked so bad last week.
AB: Is Nick Bosa better than his brother was and how does Ohio State utilize him on the line?
MT: Man, it’s tough to say whether or not Nick is better than Joey was, because the younger Bosa came in with so many expectations, while Joey was able to develop at his own pace. Nick’s numbers aren’t yet as good as Joey’s were, mainly because-- thanks to the depth on defensive line for Ohio State-- Nick only became a starter in the middle of last year.
However, like his older brother, he has an incredible burst off of the line of scrimmage and, thanks to his speed and technique with his hands, can get around the corner almost at will. We saw in Joey’s third and final year in Columbus, a lot of teams started double and triple-teaming him, which I think we will likely see to a degree this season with Nick, because if teams don’t, he will be in the backfield a lot.
What’s nice for Ohio State is that they have a pretty stacked defensive line, so the more attention paid to Bosa, the more room to maneuver Dre’Mont Jones, Chase Young, Robert Landers, and company will have. So basically, I am very happy to be in the sixth year of having a Bosa play for Ohio State rather than against Ohio State.
AB: Ohio State offers a great gameday environment, so could you please give a few recommendations for visiting Rutgers fans on some things they should do on their visit?
MT: The first thing that I always mention to visiting fans is to go the the Skull Session at St. John Arena, just across from The Horseshoe. It starts an hour and a half before kickoff, but you’ll likely need to get there earlier to get a seat. The Skull Session is, for lack of a better description, the marching band’s warmup; but it is so much more than that. The band will enter in a condensed version of their traditional ramp entrance, they will play through all of the music for the day, then the team will come through on their way to the stadium. Day, an assistant coach, and a player will address the crowd. It gets hot in St. John, but it’s an incredible experience.
Now, this is going to sound even lamer than going to the marching band’s warmup, but you should also stop by the William Oxley Thompson Memorial Library. It is at the west end of The Oval, one of the iconic spots on campus, right next to Mirror Lake— an equally famous campus landmark. The library went through a major renovation about a decade ago and is truly gorgeous. Also, if you go to the Sphinx Plaza right next to library and find the plaque for the Sphinx Class of 2002, you can say hi to my name.
Onto the good stuff; there will be tons of parties and tailgates around the stadium and all kinds of places to eat on High Street to the east of campus and Lane Avenue to the north, both just a few blocks from the stadium. Pace yourselves though, it’s a 3:30 p.m. kick, and there will be lots of food and beverage to consume.
AB: What is your prediction for Saturday’s game?
MT: I think that the defense will clean up some of its problems from the Oregon State game, and limit the chunk plays, so I will go with 56-17, Ohio State.
Thanks to Matt for giving us great insight on this week’s opponent. You can follow him on twitter here and for complete coverage of Ohio State football, visit Land Grant Holy Land. To read my take on this matchup from a Rutgers perspective ahead of Satuday’s game, click here.