COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State will have a tough act to follow after its 45-24 win against Oklahoma on Sept. 17, but the Buckeyes got an extra week to prepare for their Big Ten debut.
With an earlier-than-usual off week for the Buckeyes, they’ll be entering Saturday’s game against Rutgers two weeks removed from their big win against the Sooners. Rutgers has not had a great start to the season, which opened with a blowout loss at the hands of Washington and also included an uninspiring win against New Mexico.
The Scarlet Knights’ most impressive performance came in a Week 4 loss to Iowa, 14-7, in a game whose highlights likely won’t be included in any instructional DVDs anytime soon. However, any good feelings from that showing were likely erased by the loss of star wide receiver Janarion Grant, who sustained a season-ending ankle injury following a 76-yard run in the loss to the Hawkeyes.
Here are five things to expect when the two teams face off on Saturday in a noon ET kickoff that will be broadcast on the Big Ten Network.
1. Familiar faces
Although Ohio State and Rutgers had never played prior to their 2014 meeting, there is no shortage of connections between the two teams thanks to the most recent offseason.
Rutgers replaced fired head coach Kyle Flood with Ohio State co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Chris Ash, and the Buckeyes responded by hiring former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano to fill that void. Ash also filled his staff with former Ohio State assistants who’d previously worked under Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer, including offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, defensive backs coach Bill Busch, special teams coordinator Vince Okruch and strength coach Kenny Parker.
With so much familiarity between the two teams, Ohio State is trying to limit any advantages Rutgers might have when it comes to knowing Ohio State’s schemes, terminology and tendencies.
“I think that, not to make light of it, that is very serious stuff and we have had that conversation (Monday) morning in great detail,” Meyer said. “We changed most of our defensive signals prior to this, and offensively we’re being very cautious. Also, special teams, my guy that helped me, Vince, was there. Now he’s on their staff, so we’ve got to just be sharp.”
2. Injury impact
First and foremost, Grant’s injury is devastating to the Scarlet Knights. The jack-of-all-trades playmaker was the biggest asset Rutgers had on offense, and his talent forced defenses to account for him at all times. He’d amassed 210 receiving yards and 138 rushing yards in addition to scoring on both kickoff and punt returns and throwing a touchdown pass on a trick play. His injury means Ohio State no longer has to game plan for someone who was a threat to score any time he touched the ball.
The Scarlet Knights will also be without starting defensive end Quanzell Lambert, who also sustained a season-ending injury against Iowa. The fifth-year senior was Rutgers’ most consistent and dependable lineman in 2015, and his absence will weaken the Scarlet Knights’ pass rush and run defense.
On the opposite sideline, Ohio State will be without wide receiver K.J. Hill and potentially linebacker Dante Booker. The Buckeyes have much more depth at those positions, however, to the point that Meyer said backup linebacker Jerome Baker could be in line to keep his job when Booker returns to health.
3. Up and at ’em
This will be Ohio State’s second home noon game of the season, and the second such contest in which it is heavily favored. The Buckeyes briefly struggled at the start of a 77-10 win against Bowling Green when quarterback J.T. Barrett threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown on the first series.
Ohio State opened as nearly a 40-point favorite in betting markets, but the Buckeyes would do well to avoid a slow start against Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights are better equipped than Bowling Green to stay in a game if a favored opponent isn’t executing at a high level. Just ask Iowa.
4. Flags flying
If there’s one area in which Ohio State has really struggled this season, it’s been avoiding mental errors and the setbacks that come with them. The Buckeyes began the season with 16 new starters, and the one stat that truly reflects that is the fact that they rank 120th out of 128 FBS teams in fewest penalties per game with a 9.67 average.
Rutgers, on the other hand, has only been flagged for 4.75 penalties per game, which ties for 17th nationally. The visitors can look to gain an edge in the field position battle if they remain disciplined and Ohio State doesn’t correct its sloppiness.
5. Passing attack
For a team with the No. 111 passing offense, the Ohio State secondary probably isn’t a welcome sight. Such is the plight of Rutgers, which has averaged just 167.0 yards through the air and now will have to face one of the nation’s most talented defensive secondaries without its own best receiver.
Rutgers’ best hope of remaining competitive with Ohio State was to find enough success in the passing game with Grant to force the Buckeyes to adjust their scheme in a way that opened up the run. Instead, the Buckeyes — who are No. 3 nationally in passing efficiency defense — will likely be able to load up the box to stop the Scarlet Knights on the ground while trusting their defensive backs to do their job with no additional help.