The question for Ohio State heading into its matchup with Rutgers was simple: Will the momentum still be there?
A quick 14-0 start for the No. 13 Buckeyes (5-1, 2-0) showed they still had a spark despite two weeks off. In a total team effort, OSU led the Scarlet Knights (5-2, 1-2) in nearly every significant statistical category — save penalties and time of possession — but its coach said there’s still work to be done.
“It’s time to, first of all, develop depth,” Urban Meyer said after his team’s 56-17 win. “We could go on and on about the mistakes that were made today. But enjoy the win tonight, go see your families, do what you gotta do and come back ready to go.”
For the Buckeyes, the time to “come back ready to go” will be Saturday when they are set to face Penn State on the road. The last time OSU faced-off with the Nittany Lions, the Scarlet and Gray came away with a 63-14 win at home. That 2013 win came at Ohio Stadium, but the last time OSU traveled to State College, Pa., the result was comparable. OSU beat Penn State, 35-23, on Oct. 27, 2012, before last season’s shellacking. On top of recent success against their upcoming opponents, the Buckeyes are on a historic streak this season against all takers.
Even with any room for improvement the coaching staff might see, the 2014 Buckeyes have already carved out a spot in the OSU record books, specifically when it comes to offensive production. The team posted 50-plus points for the fourth straight game — a school record — and it gained 500 yards or more in each of those games, which is tied for the program’s best.
Production of that nature would be a good sign for every team, but at least one OSU assistant said he wants to keep focusing on ways to improve instead of talking about what the Buckeyes have done lately. Co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Tom Herman said he’s not ready to make a judgment on where OSU stands, but added he hopes to have a clearer picture as the Big Ten schedule heats up.
“Obviously the scoreboard and the play-by-play or stats say that we’re playing pretty well, but as a coach you always try to find the things that you can get better at,” Herman said after the game. “I don’t know how well we’re playing.”
Meyer said it will be important for the Buckeyes to continue focusing on improvement rather than touting recent success, something he said he feels the team is able to do.
“The good thing is that I don’t feel like there’s a complacent attitude,” Meyer said. “Complacency is awful in this business and with the players, because when you watch the film, we could actually have played a lot better in certain situations.”
In order to find the spots where OSU could have performed better against the Scarlet Knights, it might be key to look beyond the box score.
The Buckeyes totaled 31 first downs on offense while holding Rutgers to a three of 13 performance on third down on defense. OSU also outgained the opposition 585 to 345 and won the turnover battle, 3-1.
Much of that success on both sides of the ball came early in the game for the Buckeyes, which led to a 35-7 advantage at the half.
“Our focus is always to start fast and get things going,” redshirt-freshman quarterback J.T. Barrett said after the game. “I think we executed better than in past weeks, but we can still eliminate some mistakes. I put some of that on myself.”
Barrett’s own mistakes didn’t come until he had already nearly hit double digits in pass attempts, as he completed his first nine throws of the game. But after Barrett ran for two scores and threw for another in the first 10:46 of the third quarter, he and the Buckeye offense stalled.
From that point on, OSU didn’t post another point and recorded just one gain of more than 14 yards.
To an extent, the Buckeyes’ defense mirrored the fast start and slow finish of their offensive counterparts. Before addressing that less-than-stellar second half, Meyer praised the defense’s overall performance against a team he said the Buckeyes respected going in.
“Our defense, you credit that, you can take the first half that’s a credit to our defense,” Meyer said. “They took a team that threw 400 plus yards against our rivals and really played well, creating turnovers once again and getting the ball to the offense rather quickly.”
From a scoring standpoint, the Buckeyes’ matchup with Rutgers was tied for their second-best defensive outing of the season. Sophomore safety Vonn Bell credited that success to every player on the defense being “all in” on what it is trying to achieve.
“You can see the progression of our players and see us getting takeaways and scoring,” Bell said after the game. “It’s very impressive this young group can understand what the coaches are telling us.”
But Meyer stressed that — despite bright spots — the defense still didn’t have the start-to-finish effort he would like to see, especially when some less experienced players got a chance to make a statement late.
“We gave up some runs, and when a two gets in the game there can’t be that big of a drop off,” he said of the second-string defense’s performance in the game. “And right now we all saw what happened, there’s a significant drop off when our twos got in there.”
Co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Luke Fickell said the coaching staff tries to communicate to the backups that they need to treat their playing time the same as if they were starters.
“We try to talk to those guys, ‘Hey, don’t consider yourself a two,’” Fickell said. “‘You want to be a one-B.’ That means there’s not a big drop off between the one-A and the one-B.”
Even though the slow finishes to the game on both sides of the ball didn’t affect the outcome of the contest, Fickell said the Buckeyes have to make sure they stay hungry rather than settling — even after a 39-point win.
“We’re never satisfied with where we are,” Fickell said. “And that’s the thing that we think that … going into what we were doing, we’ve got to be able to finish things.”
Whatever adjustments or improvements the Buckeyes can make are set to be showcased after a week of practice. OSU is scheduled to take on Penn State on Saturday in State College, Pa. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.