Rutgers is improved, but Buckeyes' biggest test Saturday might be complacency

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra

Rutgers will be on the opposite sideline on Saturday.

But the Scarlet Knights aren’t really the main opponent for the Ohio State football team this week.

That’s not a slap at Rutgers (1-1), though in its first six years in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights have served as everyone’s punching bag, especially for the Buckeyes. Last year’s 56-21 rout represented OSU's smallest margin of victory in the team’s matchups.

Former Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano was re-hired to do what only he has done in Rutgers’ modern history. Schiano turned the Knights into winners during their Big East days, and so far this year, they have shown significant improvement.

They stunned Michigan State in the season opener 38-27 and then lost respectably to Indiana 37-21.

Ohio State coaches and players, including linebacker Pete Werner (20), appreciated how the Buckeyes got after Penn State at the start of last week's victory but acknowledged there are still matters to clean up to keep OSU on the right track.

“When you watch them on both sides of the ball, they’re playing hard,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “He’s brought in some different talent, and they’re playing with some energy. They’re playing tough. They’re playing smart. You can already see the impact that he and his staff are having.”

That may all be true. It really shouldn’t matter Saturday night.

No. 3 Ohio State (2-0) is vastly more talented than 37-point underdog Rutgers, just as the Buckeyes will be against the rest of their Big Ten opponents.

So the biggest issue for the Buckeyes this week, and the rest of the regular season, will be battling complacency. That includes how they prepare and play, and how diligent they are in their daily habits, including safeguarding against COVID-19.

“We’ve got to continue to play like we did in the Penn State game — physical, with energy, and fast,” Day said. “The big message has been this week: How can we do things better? How can we practice better? How can we coach better? How can we teach better? How can we listen better? How can we protect ourselves from the virus better? How can you sleep better, eat better?

“Everything has to be better, if we want to be great. That's what we have to focus on.”

Ohio State’s first goal is to win the Big Ten, and after two weeks, the odds of that are even more in their favor following last week’s win at Penn State and the mediocrity displayed throughout the rest of the league.

But the Buckeyes have higher aspirations. If they want to win the national championship, they have to strive to play at their level, not the competition’s.

“We’ve got to stay on the right track,” linebacker Pete Werner said. “We’ve got to keep coming out like we did against Penn State. We’ve got to keep that same energy. Although it might not feel like we can have that energy (without) 110,000 fans the stands, we all have to have that feeling.”

Day has been generally pleased with his team’s performance in the first two weeks. He also sees its flaws. Against Nebraska, the running game sputtered, and the defense early was spotty. Last week, the Buckeyes gave up three second-half touchdown passes and missed two chip-shot field goals.

“It’s just a matter of, what do you want as a team?” Day said. “Do you just want to be average, do you want to be great, or do you want to be just pretty good? If we’re chasing greatness — if that's what we really want to be — then every day we should be going after this thing 100 miles an hour.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. Shouldn’t matter. It’s more about us. That’s what we’re chasing right now, and we’re not there. We’re not close. So we’ve got to prove it in all three phases.”