Realistically, Rutgers will be hard pressed to leave Columbus, Ohio on Saturday night as the winning side. However, there are certain areas they can be successful against Ohio State that would show progress for the program just two games into head coach Chris Ash’s third season. Here are five factors to assess Rutgers performance against the Buckeyes.
The Offense Demonstrate Competence
This seems basic but it’s something Rutgers hasn’t accomplished against Ohio State, really ever. 2014 was by far their best offensive performance against the Buckeyes, as they scored 17 points, amassed 345 total yards, 3 turnovers and were just 3 of 14 on third down. In the past three meetings, the Rutgers offense has scored only 7 points, which was a Hayden Rettig touchdown pass with 13 seconds remaining in the 2015 game. In the past three meetings, they averaged just 206 total yards and were just 15 of 47 on third down conversions (32%). These results are not surprising considering the offense was one of the worst in college football in recent seasons.
Whether heavy rain occurs during Saturday’s game or not, true freshman Artur Sitkowski will be entering the eye of the storm that is playing such a talented team in a hostile environment such as the Horseshoe at Ohio State. He’ll be helped by having John McNulty calling the plays, as he is obviously familiar with a Greg Schiano defense.
The biggest issue in my opinion in this series over the years has been Rutgers inability to generate anything in the run game, thus leading to many third and long situations, which resulted in many three and outs and stalled drives. This continually gassed the defense, something that was commonplace against most Big Ten opponents the past two seasons. The Scarlet Knights need to control the clock for even modest portions of this game to keep the high powered Buckeye offense off the field.
If the Rutgers offense can sustain drives and generate multiple scores while playing relatively clean by avoiding penalties and turnovers, it would be a huge step forward versus recent results against the powerhouse Buckeyes. How well Sitkowski can manager the offense and keep his poise is a huge key in this game. Of course, there is another measuring stick for the offense on Saturday as well.
Generate Big Plays On Offense
Oregon State produced three big play touchdowns in last week’s season opener at Ohio State. They had a 49 yard touchdown pass in the first half and two scoring runs of 78 and 80 yards in the second half. The Buckeyes defense is still wildly talented, but their best defensive back Jordan Fuller is questionable for this game. It’s still early in the season and the unit appears to still be working out some kinks. McNulty will certainly take some shots down the field in the passing game and look to get Raheem Blackshear out on the edge as well. Rutgers would also get a huge confidence boost if they could break a few big plays on the road in what will be a hostile environment. It’s a huge test for Sitkowski, but he has the ability to get the ball in the hands of several playmakers on offense, it’s just a matter of execution.
Defense Prove It’s Worth
The Rutgers defense has a chance to be a top half unit in the Big Ten this season and Saturday is a great opportunity for them to prove that. Ohio State scored 11 touchdowns last weekend and behind new starting quarterback Dwayne Haskins, their offense actually looks even strong this season. Haskins threw for over 300 yards and completed 73% of his passes in his first career start last weekend. The Buckeyes have two great running backs and multiple receiving targets as well.
Can the Rutgers defense hold their own and slow down their high powered attack? Can they generate any type of pass rush and pressure in this game? Will the deep linebacking core prove to be an asset against an elite team by allowing defensive coordinator Jay Niemann to utilize multiple looks and fronts to challenge Haskins ability to read the coverages? Will the banged up secondary, already missing Blessuan Austin and possibly Kiy Hester and Tre Avery as well, hold up under pressure on the road? These are all major questions and even if the Rutgers defense allows Ohio State to score in the thirties, it would feel like progress versus recent history and how good the Buckeyes looked in the opener.
Be Competitive Into The Second Half
In the past four meetings, Rutgers trailed Ohio State at the half by the following scores: 35-0 in 2017; 30-0 in 2016; 21-0 in 2015; 35-7 in 2014. If Rutgers wants to show the program is ready to take a step forward this season, they simply can’t have those type of first half results anymore, even against a team as talented as the Buckeyes. If Rutgers can be within two scores at the half and for even a portion of the second half, it would mark significant progress in this series. Who knows, if they could hang around even longer it would give this young team a lot of confidence heading into a very big month ahead in facing multiple winnable games.
Covering The Spread/Reducing Past Margin Of Defeat By About Half
The average margin of defeat in the last four seasons against Ohio State has been by 7 touchdowns. While the offense has been non-existent, the Scarlet Knights defense, while not having approached Schiano era levels, was respectable last season. And yet it still surrendered 56 points, 1 more than the four year average in this series. This is why some, including our own T.J. Jurkiewicz, felt the opening spread for this season’s contest at 33 points was too low. As of Friday night, it’s up to 36 points, which is still a lower margin of defeat than Rutgers suffered the past three seasons.
If Ash’s team can stay in the game into the second half as stated above and the wheels don’t come completely flying off in the fourth quarter, Rutgers would show some progress even in a 20-30 point loss. There aren’t many power five teams that Rutgers has been better than the past two seasons, but Oregon State is one of them. They lost last weekend 77-31. If the offense can show improvement as previously mentioned and the defense play respectable, Rutgers should leave the field having been far more competitive than ever before against Ohio State.
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