Ohio State’s win at Rutgers wasn’t pretty, but it doesn’t matter

Joey Kaufman,Bill Rabinowitz
Ohio State defensive tackle Haskell Garrett, second from left, and cornerback Amir Riep congratulate linebacker K'Vaughan Pope after he made an interception during the third quarter Saturday against Rutgers. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

One day after each Ohio State football game, beat reporters Joey Kaufman and Bill Rabinowitz discuss the lasting storylines and other key developments. Their latest back-and-forth follows the Buckeyes’ 56-21 win at Rutgers on Saturday:

Kaufman: Is it a stretch to think that the Buckeyes’ performance at Rutgers was their worst this season? The 21 points their defense allowed equaled the most from any game this season, and the hapless Scarlet Knights had combined for just 24 points in all of their first six Big Ten games, including being shut out three times. But I’m also not sure this matters much. There were no style points to gain in this type of matchup. The Buckeyes just needed to get out of key players, especially quarterback Justin Fields. They accomplished that. The College Football Playoff chase can resume.

Rabinowitz: If that was the worst Buckeyes performance of the year, that says more about the standard to which they've played. Yes, it was a surprise that Rutgers scored 21 points, but two of the touchdowns were set up by turnovers — the first and third ones — and/or given up by backups — the second and third ones. Rutgers didn't do much against a defense that was without Chase Young, Damon Arnette, Jonathon Cooper and Baron Browning. The offense looked sharp enough, though the game plan was deliberately vanilla. Yes, the most important thing was to escape without injury, though Fields flirted with it a couple of times. I know we've said this before, but now the prelims are really over and the true tests begin, starting this week with Penn State.

Kaufman: You have to grade on a curve with these Buckeyes, not that the performance against Rutgers is a harbinger of much to come. It’s a difficult game to find motivation for, and this team is good enough to win by five touchdowns without much effort. The season is going to be defined by what happens next, the games against Penn State and Michigan. Players and coaches know it. If Ohio State beats the Nittany Lions, it will clinch the Big Ten East and a trip to Indianapolis for the conference championship game. Before we start delving into those matchups some more, is there anything of consequence we learned from the latest rout?

Rabinowitz: Honestly, not really. It reinforced how good cornerback Shaun Wade and receiver Chris Olave are. Linebacker Malik Harrison and nose guard DaVon Hamilton had strong games again. So did J.K. Dobbins while playing for just the first half — again. He has only four carries in the fourth quarter this season. I asked him if he was looking forward to playing some four-quarter games with Penn State, Michigan and beyond coming up. And he said, "Why does it have to be a four-quarter game?" That kind of sums up the confidence level of this team.

Kaufman: If they played more four-quarter games, or at least longer into the second half, perhaps Dobbins and Fields would be stronger candidates for the Heisman Trophy. It was a point raised by coach Ryan Day during his post. I think Day’s comments were off the cuff, or at least a reminder to Heisman voters. It’s a good problem to have.

Rabinowitz: I think Fields is a lock to go to New York, though the Heisman is clearly Burrow’s to lose. If Chase Young has a big closing stretch, I think voters would overlook his two-game suspension and he could join Fields there. Dobbins is a long shot unless he runs wild the last two games. But I can’t recall the last time any team had three guys for whom you could make a legitimate case for Heisman consideration. But all of that pales in comparison to what’s at stake for the Buckeyes as a team. As we’ve indicated earlier, the Buckeyes’ season really starts now. We know they’re an exceptional team. Will they raise their game against legitimate competition? We’re about to find out.