Rutgers Matchup Creates Intrigue

By Jeff Rapp, October 17th, 2014

The adjective just rolled off my lips Thursday night while serving as a panelist for “Bucksline,” a popular 610 (AM) WTVN radio program we do live at a local restaurant.

When host Matt McCoy asked me about the impending game between Ohio State and Rutgers on Saturday (3:30 p.m. Eastern, ABC/ESPN2), I quickly grabbed for the word “intriguing.”

At first blush, this game isn’t supposed to be anything close to that. The Buckeyes (4-1, 1-0) have inched up to No. 13 in both major polls, are at home, and have more talent than their guests, who are newbies to the Big Ten. But studying up on Rutgers (5-1, 1-1), I found reasons to be interested to see this game unfold.

The Scarlet Knights are producing 29.5 points per game and allowing 21.7. Those are not real eye-opening numbers. In fact, they rank 73rd and 43rd nationally out of 128 FBS programs.

However, the fact that RU has figured out a way to win five of six games – the lone loss was by a field goal to Penn State – and has avoided critical mistakes in the process is noteworthy.

The previous three seasons, quarterback Gary Nova was a taketh-and-giveth performer with 51 career touchdown passes and a whopping 39 interceptions. This season, the 6-2 senior has a 13-7 ratio including a 3-0 mark in the 26-24 win over Michigan. Oh yeah, he also threw for 404 yards in that game.

Nova still can be prone to disaster – we’ll get to that later – but Rutgers is No. 4 nationally in passing efficiency with him at the helm. Also, the Scarlet Knights present some other challenges, specifically in terms of creating big plays, pass rush and even blocking kicks.

Therefore, let’s buzz through some of the more interesting facets of this game:

* Rest Up – The Buckeyes are coming off their second open week and a rousing win, so the expectation is that OSU will be focused, rested and ready for the Scarlet Knights. However, Rutgers also had a crack in the schedule last week and good feelings are still generating from a final-seconds win over Michigan in New Jersey.

I heard RU’s play-by-play announcer interviewed on the radio recently and he made it clear that the Scarlet Knights and their fans are confident and anticipating a successful trip to Columbus.

We’ll see if either team appears fresher and which one gets the jump in this one.

* The Fridge Effect – Nova has settled down partly because of his experience but also because of the addition of offensive coordinator Ralph Friedgen, the former head coach at Maryland.

Friedgen brings proven success to the offense and has shown that a more traditional – or dare we say professional – approach still can get it done in today’s world of spread and abandon the run.

Rutgers does a decent job of staying patient offensively and has possessed the ball to the tune of 31:20 a game. Friedgen likes to use two backs, at least one tight end and keep the down-and-distance manageable.

However, RU can strike in a big way as well. In fact, Nova leads the nation in yards per completion and several wideouts – seven to be exact – have a long reception of 29 yards or more this season.

Much of Rutgers’ passing success is built off of play-action, which, of course, requires an effective run game. That aspect took a hit when tailback Paul James was lost for the season because of a knee injury but the roster still is blessed with depth behind him.

OSU has got to find a way to get the Knights off the field after third-down plays or Rutgers will manage to stick around in this game.

* Under Pressure – Going into the season, the expectation was that Ohio State had the most lethal defensive line in the country and the Buckeyes were likely going to build on last year’s healthy sack total of 43. Instead, Noah Spence was lost for the season via suspension and the D-line struggled at times this season.

Rutgers, meanwhile, has racked up 24 sacks, which is third-best in the country. The Knights love to get teams in obvious passing situations and unleash their pass-rush personnel. And, like OSU’s previous opponents, they most likely will tighten up and force the Buckeyes to throw even though redshirt freshman J.T. Barrett has been more than up to the challenge.

One player to keep a close eye on is Rutgers DL Darius Hamilton, who has NFL ability.

On the flip side, the Buckeyes need to build off the momentum of their last outing vs. Maryland and get after Nova, who still can be rattled. In RU’s lone loss to Penn State, Nova failed to throw a TD and was picked five times.

The Buckeyes had four interceptions against Maryland and could have opportunity for a like number if the front seven can get in the face of Nova with regularity.

* Block Party – Ohio State has been borderline sensational on special teams this season. Cameron Johnston has booted seven of his 12 punts inside the 10-yard line and OSU has averaged 39.1 net yards per punt. The kickoff cover teams have been outstanding, forcing foes into poor average starting field position. OSU hasn’t busted a return yet but is due. FreshmanSean Nuernberger, meanwhile, has made 6 of 9 field-goal attempts and 29 of 29 extra points.

Still, the Scarlet Knights believe they can turn the game on kicking plays. Why? Well, consider that RU has a nation-best five blocks already this year, which is becoming standard for the program.

In the last five years, Rutgers has a staggering 40 blocked kicks, which is best in the nation by a wide margin – 13 more than the next school on the list.

This season, Big Ten sacks leader Kemoko Turay (6-6, 235) has two blocks, while leading wide receiver Leonte Carrooand starting cornerback Nadir Barnwell have one apiece.

Just to add to the danger, wideout Janarion Grant is a skilled return man.

* Rush To Judgment – I’ve always maintained that any team hoping to come into the Horseshoe and win has to find a way to run the football effectively. The odds are against such success, and Rutgers will be challenge to change the trend.

The Knights miss James, who was averaging 5.8 yards per game. However, they still have a speed back in Desmond Peoples, who is just 5-8, 175. Peoples is a threat out on the edge and Justin Goodwin (6-0, 200) also has taken some handoffs and shown some pop in place of James.

The Buckeyes are allowing 4.0 yards per rushing attempt but seem to be getting their sea legs up front. Again, the Scarlet Knights can hang around if they can stay with the game plan and find some balance in the process. If not, their odds of pulling off this upset swell like Keith Olbermann’s ego.

* Real Reason For Concern? – It’s possible in a few weeks Rutgers won’t be adding any intrigue to the conference race. After all, Kyle Flood’s team lost to Penn State, needed a controversial call to get past a seemingly mediocre Michigan squad and still has to play at Ohio State, Nebraska and Michigan State. There’s also a Nov. 1 home game with Wisconsin.

Not only is 5-1 in the second half looking virtually impossible, the Scarlet Knights easily could find themselves scrambling to be bowl eligible at the end of the season.

Still, considering the success so far rushing the passer, throwing the ball, blocking kicks and creating big plays there appears to be some level of trepidation at the moment.

The Buckeyes should be able to take advantage of a gambling defense and a secondary that has been too leaky the past couple seasons. However, they’ll have to block effectively, avoid disaster on special teams, and come up with some key third-down stops on defense.

So how will it shake out? I’ll go with this prediction: Ohio State 38, Rutgers 17