The No. 11 Ohio State football team (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) will travel to Piscataway, New Jersey, for its second Big Ten game of the season Saturday against Rutgers (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten) at 7:30 p.m. Here’s what to expect on all sides of the ball heading into the game.
Ohio State offense vs. Rutgers defense
The Buckeyes will match up with the stingiest defense they have played this season. Rutgers is tied for the 27th-fewest points allowed per game at only 18.3 points per game.
The key to the team’s defensive success has been the improved play of the defensive backs. The Scarlet Knights have allowed only 179.5 passing yards per game so far this season, 34th-fewest in the country. They also rank 16th with five passes picked off and have returned one for a touchdown.
Defensive back Kiy Hester has been the biggest defensive weapon this season for the Scarlet Knights. His eight passes defended are tied for third among FBS players, and his two picks — one for a touchdown — put him in a tie for 12th-most.
“One thing I notice right off the bat when I started watching film was that their secondary is very aggressive,” H-back Parris Campbell said Tuesday. “They have really, really good coverage skills and you don’t see too many guys getting beat on that defense.”
But Ohio State’s passing offense appears to be clicking lately, which could provide Rutgers all it can handle. The offense has recently shied away from its attempts to deploy the deep ball, instead opting for shorter passes on bubble screens and crossing routes and relying on perimeter blocking down the field to open up big gains for playmakers like Campbell and wide receiver Austin Mack.
“You block good out there and it pops,” wide receiver Johnnie Dixon said Tuesday. “A guy like Parris touches the ball and you see what he can do. He’s quick. Give him the ball in space and lights out.”
Rutgers’ rush defense has also been more stout this season than last. After allowing 264.2 rush yards per game last season (third-worst in the nation), the Scarlet Knights have allowed teams to average just 118.8 rush yards per game (37th-best) and only one touchdown coming on the ground. The team has received big performances from redshirt senior defensive tackle Darnell Davis Jr., who leads the team in both tackles for a loss (3.5) and sacks (two), and junior linebacker Trevor Morris, who paces the team with 29 tackles.
This ability to stop the run will be tested against an Ohio State rushing offense that ranks 24th among FBS teams with 229.8 average rushing yards per game and seven touchdowns scored already. Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins has emerged as one of the best running backs in the nation, leading the Big Ten in total rushing yards (520), two yards ahead of Heisman-hopeful Penn State running back Saquon Barkley.
The Ohio State backfield will also receive the added support of redshirt sophomore running back Mike Weber, whom head coach Urban Meyer said Monday is cleared to play Saturday. Last season, Weber was the third Buckeye freshman ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
Ohio State defense vs. Rutgers offense
Offensively, the Scarlet Knights are a different story. A season after ranking dead last in total offense among FBS teams, they have made marginal strides in escaping the cellar, ranking 110th of 129 teams in total offense with an average of just 326.8 yards per game.
Rutgers’ passing game has been its biggest struggle. Quarterback Kyle Bolin has completed just 57.3 percent of his passes (67-of-117) for 642 passing yards. In his first season for Rutgers after transferring from Louisville, Bolin’s inaccuracy has led to more interceptions (six) than touchdowns (three). Overall, the team’s average of 163.5 passing yards per game ranks 117th among FBS teams.
The backbone for the Scarlet Knights’ offense has been its ability to run. The team averages 163.3 rushing yards per game, good for 69th on the FBS leaderboards. Another transfer — redshirt senior running back Gus Edwards — has been the primary source of production from the team’s backfield. The transfer from Miami (Fla.) has carried the football 62 times for 259 yards (4.2 yards per carry) and scored two of the team’s nine rushing touchdowns.
Unfortunately for Rutgers, its biggest strength will run into Ohio State’s stingy defensive line. The overall rush defense numbers on the season do not look great for Ohio State as it has allowed 139 yards on average, which ranks 60th among FBS teams.
However, it also faced back-to-back offenses that almost exclusively ran the ball — Army and UNLV rank third and eighth in average rush yards per game, respectively — which has inflated the average a bit for Ohio State. Not to mention that by the beginning of the second half of the Buckeyes’ last game against UNLV, a majority of the starters on the line had been replaced by the backups.
Redshirt senior defensive tackle Tyquan Lewis said that heading into a game where the opposing offense might rely on its run game again, it will be important for the defensive line to establish a tempo early.
“Make it a point of emphasis that you’re able to dominate the game and establish that we’re a dominant group and get ahead,” Lewis said Wednesday. “That’s very important. Just getting it all together. Coming out and setting a tone, that’s the main objective.”
Conversely, the passing-defense numbers for Ohio State look a lot better than they might be had the team played more balanced offenses. The Buckeyes rank 67th in passing yards allowed this season, but after their first two games against Indiana and Oklahoma, the team was ranked last with an average of more than 400 passing yards per game.
For Rutgers, the combination of a weak passing attack combined with the matchup against a stout Ohio State defensive front lends itself to a bad matchup for the Scarlet Knights. The team’s offense could be kept in check for much of the game.
Edward Sutelan: Ohio State wins 42-10
Colin Hass-Hill: Ohio State wins 38-17