Rob Oller | Ohio State defense didn’t live up to its standard against Rutgers

Rob Oller
Ohio State safety Brendon White brings down Rutgers running back Isaih Pacheco in the third quarter. [Kyle Robertson/Dispatch]

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — Don’t believe what you’ve heard about an Ohio State trip to Rutgers offering nothing constructive. It’s simply not true.

For instance, amazing the number of commercial jets visible from the SHI Stadium press box as they fly into and out of the New York area. That’s some impressive air traffic control right there.

And did you know sunset arrives a full 35 minutes earlier here on the outskirts of NYC than in Columbus? You know how in Ohio mid-November darkness makes 6 p.m. feel like 9 p.m.? Well, here it feels that way at 5 p.m.

New York style pizza? If you want to blend in with the locals, fold it before eating.

Then there’s Rutgers football. Sure, the Scarlet Knights don’t bring a lot of classroom instruction to the table — at least not for opponents like Ohio State, which drubbed them 56-21 Saturday — but at least the Scarlet Knights gave the Buckeyes something to think about entering stiffer tests ahead against visiting Penn State on Saturday and at Michigan on Nov. 30.

For example, how does Ohio State’s defense, which ranks No. 1 nationally in scoring defense (9.8), allow Rutgers to score its first touchdown against the Buckeyes since 2015? Not only that, but Rutgers — 2-8 with wins over Liberty and Massachusetts, the latter probably the worst FBS team in America — became the first team this season to score a first-quarter touchdown against Ohio State. That’s not a misprint. Rutgers.

Adding to Ohio State’s frustration? Giving up 21 points to the Scarlet Knights, although only one occurred against the first-team defense. Only Florida Atlantic in the opener scored as many.

On the other hand, coach Ryan Day shed no tears over the lack of perfection, largely because most of the miscues came during the second half, when the starters were long gone. But also, no better way to motivate your defense than to focus on the hole in the doughnut.

“It bothers us,” cornerback Shaun Wade said. “We gave up 21. Now time to move ahead, but it definitely humbled us this week.”

The Buckeyes avoided catastrophic injuries to important starters — yes, all starters are important, but to paraphrase “Animal Farm,” some starters are more important than others. Getting out of Dodge healthy was the biggest win of all. Look what happened at Mississippi State, where Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa suffered a season-ending hip injury. The Crimson Tide won 38-7 but may have lost all benefit of the doubt with the College Football Playoff committee. Picking the Tide as a playoff team seems unlikely now.

The same could be said of Ohio State if quarterback Justin Fields were to be lost indefinitely, which explains the scare when medical personnel attended to Fields on the bench late in the second half. He returned to start the third quarter before backup Chris Chugunov came on after one series. Day assured that his QB’s health was fine. Fields finished with a career-high 305 yards on 15-of-19 passing and four touchdowns. Don’t look now, but with Tagovailoa’s injury, the sophomore is the second- or third-best bet to win the Heisman Trophy, behind LSU quarterback Joe Burrow — who graduated from Ohio State and transferred to LSU before last season — and Oklahoma quarterback Jalen Hurts.

Ohio State could have scored 70 points on Saturday if Day had played his starters deep into the third quarter. The Buckeyes lead the nation in scoring at 51.5 points a game — Oklahoma entered the day second at 48.4 — and are trying to become the first team since Texas (50.2 in 2005) to win a national championship while leading that category.

Still, defense matters more. Five of the last eight national champions led the nation in fewest points allowed. Could the Buckeyes finish the season leading in both scoring and fewest points allowed? Yes (Georgia is second in scoring defense at 10.5). But to do so they can’t afford another Rutgers.

Yes, Rutgers. Not a typo.