After an encouraging 1-1 start to the season, Rutgers will face the opponent who has handed them the worst punishment of any Big Ten foe since joining the conference in 2014. In the six meetings between Ohio State and Rutgers, the average score has been 55-8.
The Buckeyes are loaded once again this season and will welcome the Scarlet Knights on Saturday night (7:30 pm ET on BTN) with wins over Nebraska and Penn State. The no. 3 team in the country will face former defensive coordinator Greg Schiano for the first time since his departure after the 2018 season. Of course, Rutgers fans hope Schiano’s familiarity with the Buckeyes and his rapid culture change that has bolstered this team so far this season can help produce a more competitive game on Saturday.
In an effort to find out more about Ohio State ahead of this matchup, I spoke with Gene Ross, the co-managing editor of SB Nation’s Land Grant Holy Land. He answered questions regarding how the start to the season has been voted by OSU fans, the potential legacy of QB Justin Fields, the strengths of this team, how Schiano is viewed by their fan base and much more. Let’s kick things off here.
AB: How has Ohio State performed versus expectations through the first two games of the season?
GR: I think Ohio State has performed pretty much up to par through the first two games. Everyone expected the offense to look really good this year, and so far it definitely has. Justin Fields is playing at another level, and the wide receivers and O-line look like some of the best units in the country. There are still some growing pains in the running game, but that is to be expected with the loss of J.K. Dobbins this past offseason.
On defense, they are still trying to work out the kinks, but once again this is expected with all of the talent the Buckeyes lost to the NFL Draft including obviously Chase Young and almost their entire secondary. Even still, they’ve done pretty well to open the season. The Penn State game in the second matchup of the year is a tough ask for a mostly new defense, but they played more than good enough to win that game comfortably.
AB: What changes has Ryan Day made to the program since the transition from Urban Meyer and how well liked is he by the fan base?
GR: Ohio State fans could not have asked for an easier transition from a legendary college football coach in Urban Meyer to the guy they have at the helm now in Ryan Day. I think the biggest change is the team’s attitude and the relationship between player and coach. Meyer was this almost larger than life figure that players respected for his well documented successes, whereas Day is a true player’s coach who guys gravitate towards for his ‘tough love’ mantra in addition to his brilliant coaching style.
In terms of production, Day has not missed a beat. Some were worried that the recruiting would drop off upon Meyer’s exit, but it has actually gotten even better as he is currently in line to potentially land the top class in both 2021 and 2022. On the field, the Buckeyes are playing as hard as ever, and the guys seem to all have fully bought into everything Ryan Day wants from his team.
AB: How does Justin Fields differ from previous multi-year starter Dwayne Haskins and where do you think he will potentially stack up among Ohio State quarterbacks all-time?
GR: Personally, I think Justin Fields is already the most talented quarterback in Ohio State history, and he would solidify that with a Heisman Trophy or a national title this season — preferably both. Dwayne Haskins was a much different quarterback, and was more your prototypical pocket passer. Fields can beat you just as well with his legs as he can with his arm, and he just has this effortless aura about him. Fields exudes confidence in every throw, and there is a sense of calm when he drops back to pass that I definitely haven’t felt with previous QBs. If it weren’t for Trevor Lawrence, Fields would easily be pegged as the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft.
AB: What are the strengths of the defense and do you think they can perform at an elite level this season?
GR: The strength of the defense early on is the interior defensive line and the linebackers. Tommy Togiai and Haskell Garrett have been brilliant up the middle to begin the season, generating even more pressure than the defensive ends. The linebackers have been really good in stopping the run, with Pete Werner functioning as the unit’s swiss-army knife, but have been suspect at times in the passing game. Ohio State has experimented with different formations in different situations this season, going to a two-linebacker set with a hybrid linebacker/safety in the box on obvious passing downs to eliminate some of these issues.
I don’t know if the defense can reach elite status, but I think they can be more than good enough to win games in the Big Ten and reach a level that could win Ohio State a national championship with how good the offense is. At the end of the day, it will come back to how much improvement we see from the defensive backs and the defensive ends moving forward.
AB: Are there any glaring weaknesses with this team and if so what are they?
GR: I wouldn’t say any weakness is ‘glaring’ right now, but as I alluded to previously, the defensive backs have been a bit suspect to start the season. The Buckeyes are feeling the losses of Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, and Jordan Fuller, and the new guys in the secondary are still adjusting to their new roles. Even Shaun Wade, Ohio State’s only returning starter in the secondary, has struggled at times after moving from the slot to the outside. Their job became even harder this week, as the team lost Cam Brown to a season-ending achilles injury on Saturday.
Kerry Coombs has been at Ohio State before, and he has a tendency to develop corners into NFL Draft picks. They have the raw talent on the field, they will just have to clean things up with their fundamentals and footwork and they should be fine. I wouldn’t say it is something to be overly concerned about, but if there is a weakness on this team right now, it is the secondary.
AB: How was Greg Schiano’s three seasons as DC at Ohio State viewed by fans and what was the view of him as a recruiter for the program?
GR: Greg Schiano had a good start to his Ohio State tenure, but he will not be remembered fondly by the fans. Schiano had a large part in coordinating the 2018 defense, which was one of the worst defenses in program history. What made his coaching look even worse in the aftermath is how good Ohio State’s 2019 defense became — which was made up almost entirely of the same group of players. Later in his career, Meyer gave out way too many coaching assistant jobs to guys that were his friends rather than those who would be best for the job, and Schiano fit that bill.
For his struggles on the field, Schiano was a solid recruiter. He is credited with the recruitment of guys like Nicholas Petit-Frere (a five-star OT who is a current starter), Okudah, Wade and Jeremy Ruckert. It is unclear how much of a direct role he had in any of these recruitments, as there are a lot of assistants on both sides of the staff who have a knack for the recruiting game, but it is hard to argue with the level of talent Ohio State routinely brought in under his watch.
AB: What is your prediction for the game?
GR: As would be the case with any team in the Big Ten this season, I just don’t see a way for the Rutgers defense to slow down Ohio State’s offense. Justin Fields currently has as many total touchdowns through two games as he has incomplete passes. The wide receivers are too deep to possibly cover everyone at once, even though Fields has favorited Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson early on, and the offensive line keeps the pocket clean way more often than not.
On the other side of the ball, Noah Vedral might be able to get things going a bit in the first half while the Buckeyes adjust to their offensive gameplan, but i can’t see much sustained success due to the talent gap between the two teams. Rutgers has not been great in the run game to begin the year, and Ohio State was able to hold Penn State’s rushing attack to 44 yards on 27 carries. If the Scarlet Knights are going to put up points, they will have to do it in the short quick passing game, where they may be able to take advantage of the linebackers in pass coverage.
In the end, I don’t think it is particularly close. Ohio State has never scored 60 points in the history of this matchup, and I don’t think they will this year either as Schiano has those guys playing harder than they were the past few years. I predicted 56-13, but I could see the score maybe being a bit closer depending on when Ryan Day decides to pull his starters.
Thanks to Gene for taking the time to give such great insight on Ohio State ahead of Saturday’s game. You can follow him on Twitter here and make sure to visit Land Grant Holy Land for complete coverage of the Buckeyes. To read my answers to Gene’s questions on Rutgers football, click here.