Yes, there are some Buckeyes excited about Saturday’s Ohio State-Rutgers game. They’re backups.
They can’t state precisely why, of course. Buckeyes players have been trained not to overlook opponents, even the 52-point underdog Scarlet Knights.
But if this season is a guide, Ohio State’s reserves have every reason to think they’ll be far more than spectators Saturday. The Buckeyes (9-0, 6-0 Big Ten) have been so dominant — outscoring opponents by 43 points per game — that their starters have spent the majority of second halves this year watching backups play.
Coach Ryan Day said after last week’s 73-14 victory over Maryland that he believes in playing as hard as possible in the first half of games and then easing up if appropriate in the second half.
That proposition might be tested. If you thought the Terrapins were overmatched last week, consider that they beat Rutgers 48-7.
The Scarlet Knights fired former Buckeyes defensive coordinator Chris Ash as coach in September after he went 8-32 in three-plus years. Interim coach Nunzio Campanile hasn’t been able to produce any magic. Rutgers (2-7, 0-6) has been outscored 245-24 in its Big Ten games.
That’s why Ohio State’s backups are eagerly awaiting this game.
Already, the benefits of the blowouts are apparent. The Buckeyes, with a few exceptions, have stayed healthy this season. It’s logical to reason that the limited snaps they’ve taken have contributed to that.
The other benefit is the growth of the backups. Day was displeased with the play of his reserves against Florida Atlantic in the opener when the Owls scored 21 points in the second half. Since then, the backups have played well. When they’ve pressed into more meaningful action, they’ve had the experience to be ready.
“There's nothing like a game rep,” said freshman defensive end Zach Harrison, who got his first start last week filling in for Chase Young. “You can practice and practice, but getting actual game reps in front of fans and against a different opponent than people wearing the same jersey, it can take your development and just shoot it through the roof.”
Fellow five-star prospect Harry Miller had only played two high school games at center, where he’s now the backup to Josh Myers. He estimates that he has taken about 120 game snaps this year. The Michigan State game was the only one in which didn’t.
“I remember going in against Wisconsin like, ‘Oh my gosh, we're playing against Wisconsin as a freshman. This is crazy,’” Miller said. “That's just a testament to how great the (starters) play.”
Miller said that offensive line coach Greg Studrawa has drilled it into the backups that they must uphold the high standard the starters have established. Day talked with pride on Thursday about how the backup line allowed the Buckeyes to run out the final 5½ minutes against the Badgers.
The Buckeyes will lose plenty of seniors next year, in addition to several underclassmen who are shoo-ins to enter the NFL draft. The more experience the backups get, the better.
“It’s been huge to be able to get in the Shoe and get reps and go against high-quality guys and get live reps that have consequences instead of controlled situations here (in practice),” Miller said.
Against Rutgers, they should see plenty of them.