PISCATAWAY, N.J. — In this easternmost outpost of the Big Ten, football success is measured in different ways.
So even though Rutgers entered its home game on Saturday night against Ohio State as a 29-point underdog, it doesn’t take a glass-half-full optimist to see a glimmer of progress: The Buckeyes were 38-point favorites before the teams met last year in Columbus.
A nine-point swing in what oddsmakers perceive as the difference in the two games from one year to the next is a sign that Rutgers football in 2017 isn’t the disaster it was a year ago in Chris Ash’s first season as coach.
That was the pregame thinking, anyway. Ohio State obliterated that point spread in the first half alone and piled on in the second half in waltzing to a 56-0 victory at High Point Solutions Stadium.
The Buckeyes have now won their four Big Ten meetings against Rutgers by a combined score of 219-24.
And yes, the loss was the Scarlet Knights’ 16th consecutive in Big Ten games and 19th straight against ranked opponents, a streak that stretches to 2009.
But pregame hope had arrived in the way that those streaks had been extended earlier this this season — grudgingly.
In Rutgers’ season opener Sept. 1, the Scarlet Knights scored on their first drive against eighth-ranked Washington and led late into the second quarter before giving up a punt return for a touchdown as the Huskies rallied for a 30-14 win.
After a disappointing loss to Eastern Michigan and a crushing victory over Morgan State, a Football Championship Subdivision patsy, Rutgers opened Big Ten play last week at Nebraska in a game that followed a similar script to the Washington loss.
The Knights scored on their first drive to take a 7-0 lead and led well into the third quarter before the Cornhuskers scored the final 13 points for a 27-17 victory in Lincoln.
“Our plan was to make it a four-quarter game and that’s exactly what we did,” Ash said. “But unfortunately we didn’t make the plays that we needed to come out on the winning end.”
It was, he added, much like the Washington loss.
“In both games, we started out fast, and then we failed to sustain offensive drives the rest of the game,” he said.
For the first four games, anyway, the difference between last season and this was how much Rutgers has improved defensively.
In 2016, Rutgers ranked No. 116 nationally in scoring defense, allowing an average of 37.5 points. (Big Ten East powers Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan contributed heavily to that number, outscoring Rutgers 175-0.)
The Scarlet Knights this season had improved that figure by nearly three touchdowns per game, allowing an average of 18.2 points. But they lost their best defensive player, cornerback Blessaun Austin, to a season-ending knee injury last week and suffered more injuries against the Buckeyes.
Saturday’s blowout loss bumped their scoring defense average to 25.8 points, and their national ranking of No. 27 is certain to skyrocket.
“Obviously not the turnout we wanted,” Ash said afterward. “You know, we got decimated with injuries in our secondary, and gave up several big plays in some critical situations there in the first half where it got out of hand.”
Ash said there’s no reason for Rutgers to stop trying.
“Just got to keep working. I mean, there's no magic formula, guys,” he said. “When you’re talking about turning around a program, it’s working, it’s hard work — that’s it.
“You coach your tails off every single day. You develop your players as much as you can physically, mentally, fundamentally, and you recruit. That’s it. You build a culture. Everyone thinks there’s a magic formula to win. It's not. It's the same formula everywhere you’re at. It’s going to take us time to do that.”
Rutgers never was going to win after Ohio State scored four second-quarter touchdowns to take a 35-0 halftime lead, but the Knights did have two chances to get on the scoreboard in the second half and avoid a second consecutive shutout against the Buckeyes.
Down 42-0 in third quarter, Rutgers drove to the OSU 20-yard line but starting quarterback Kyle Bolin was stopped a yard short on a fourth-and-5 run.
Late in the game, when it was 56-0, the Knights drove to the Ohio State 14 but Andrew Harte’s 32-yard field-goal attempt banged off the right upright.
Of the earlier series, Ash said he went for it on fourth down “ because we were hoping to get a first down.”
And at the end of the game, “we wanted to get points on the board. That’s it. Try to avoid the goose egg. When you’re in that situation, that’s what any coach would do.”
Asked whether he was surprised to see Ohio State players cheer the missed field goal and preserve its shutout, Ash said, “I would have done the same thing.”