After winning three straight to open the season, Rutgers lost last week to Iowa 27-10. The Knights netted just 361 yards of offense, including a season-low 61 rushing, and will face an Ohio State team that toyed with Wisconsin last Saturday in a 52-21 beatdown.
Here are three things to know about the game.
Ohio State receivers have not missed a beat
If you had told Ohio State fans that receivers Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Julian Fleming would miss time early in the season but that the receivers would still flourish, they might have thought you were a little crazy. Sure, the receiver room is teeming with talent, and losing one usually wouldn’t be cause for concern.
But the offense struggled for a bit after Smith-Njigba was hurt in the opener against Notre Dame, a game that Fleming also missed. It’s hard for even the best group to produce at a high level when its top dog is out, but the Buckeyes have.
Coach Ryan Day said the Buckeyes had drawn up a good number of plays for Smith-Njigba in the opener, so when he went out in the first quarter, the initial thought was, “Oh boy, what are we doing now?”
What Ohio State is doing is making the ridiculous look easy, and it’s been a different player every week.
One game it’s Marvin Harrison Jr., the next it’s Emeka Egbuka, the next it’s Fleming. Day said all three hardly resemble the player each was a year ago. They all deferred then to Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, now in the NFL.
“Having Marvin and Emeka and now Julian, Xavier Johnson, that’s a whole different group than we had last year,” Day said.
The Buckeyes have looked for ways each week to feature them, which has been “a little bit of a different feel.”
Rutgers enters as one of the more active defenses, intercepting five passes and limiting opponents to just 57.5% completions. But Rutgers has played Boston College (87th in passing offense), Temple (109), and Iowa (124), along with FCS Wagner. Ohio State, in the top 15 in most passing categories, is a huge step up.
Having Fleming back has given the offense a jolt, and it’s because he does more than just catch the football. Day said he has been a standout blocker and has been a difficult matchup physically.
“Because of his strength, he’s a mismatch for a lot of DBs,” he said.
Smith-Njigba is out this week, but Day is hopeful he will return soon. The Buckeyes face Michigan State on Oct. 8 then have an off week, which should allow Smith-Njigba extra time to heal before Iowa visits on Oct. 22.
“It’s the medical staff and Jaxon,” Day said. “We always defer to trainers and doctors and then get feedback from the player. … We’ll continue to do that. We’re not gonna put any timetable on it. … I know he’s frustrated, but we’re not as far away as we think.”
Ohio State has done fine without him, leading the nation with 15 pass plays of 30 or more yards.
Scarlet Knights have improved under Schiano
This is Greg Schiano’s second time as Rutgers coach, and he appears to be taking the same path as the first time.
The Knights were coming off of a 2-10 season in 2019 when Schiano, a former Ohio State assistant, took over, and he was able to nudge them to one victory more. Last season was another jump, to 5-8, which included a bowl loss to Wake Forest. It was Rutgers’ first postseason trip since winning the 2014 Quick Lane Bowl.
In his first stint in New Brunswick, from 2001 to ’11, Schiano guided Rutgers to seven or more victories in six seasons, including an 11-2 record in 2006 when the Knights ascended as high as seventh in the AP poll.
“He’s an excellent motivator, creates great relationships with his players,” Day said of Schiano. “Really can drive his whole program at a high level. I think he’s an excellent leader.”
Some might say how well Rutgers does this Saturday will be the true determination of whether he has his team trending in the right direction, but he does not see it that way.
“It will be a great measuring stick if we play well. But if you play poorly against a team like Ohio State, it really gets exposed, right?” Schiano said.
Rutgers is fifth in the Big Ten in total defense but struggles offensively, averaging just 367.3 yards per game, good for 13th in the league. Some of that has been due to injuries to quarterbacks Noah Vedral and Gavin Wimsatt, leaving untested sophomore Evan Simon at the controls. Running back Aaron Young has also been banged up and has yet to play in 2022.
“We have lost some really valuable players to injury, some of them will be coming back as we go,” Schiano said. “Some of them won’t. Some of them will have to wait until next year to see. Overall, the tide is definitely rising, and we are going out to Columbus to play our very best game since we’ve been back and see where that puts us.”
Fans may see young faces
Rutgers became a member of the Big Ten in 2014 and has played the Buckeyes every season, falling all eight times.
Not only has Ohio State won but won decisively. OSU has never scored fewer than 49 points against the Scarlet Knights, and the average margin of victory in those games is 42.5 for the Buckeyes. There have been two shutouts, in 2016 and ’17, and Rutgers has scored more than 14 points just three times.
It seems to be a huge request for Rutgers to win – or even keep it close – but that appears to be the mindset.
“We are going to win the game,” Schiano said. “That’s what we’re doing. We’re going to Columbus to win the game. Will that happen? You know there’s another team on the other sideline that wants the same thing. That’s why goals are overrated in my opinion.
“We both have the same goal at the beginning of any game. But we are going to do everything we can, we are going to practice and get ready and go out to Columbus and play our best.”