After struggling more than expected vs. Rutgers, Ohio State has lessons to learn
Justin Fields did not expect to be playing deep into the fourth quarter Saturday night, especially after Ohio State took a 32-point halftime lead against Rutgers.
“To be honest, no, I did not,” the Buckeyes’ quarterback said. “And I don't think anybody did, to be honest with you.”
But Fields took all but the final snap after Rutgers scored four second-half touchdowns in Ohio State’s 49-27 victory. Credit Rutgers, which is on the way toward respectability under former Ohio State defensive coordinator Greg Schiano. Credit Schiano for a creative game plan that used gimmickry to counteract the Buckeyes’ talent advantage.
Make no mistake, the outcome was never in doubt. Fields and the Buckeyes’ passing game – he was 24 of 28 for 314 yards and five touchdowns – continues to be nearly unstoppable. Rutgers didn't get closer than 42-21 early in the fourth quarter.
Still, Ohio State was a 38-point favorite. The expectation was this would be a game in which Fields and the other starters could rest for much of the second half, especially after taking a 35-3 halftime lead.
“I think we (gave) up too many points in the second half,” Fields said, “and coach Day was just talking about that. What we need to focus on is just playing the second half better, finishing teams off.”
That’s true, especially with Maryland and Indiana up next. In this wacky year, the Terrapins (2-1 after routing Penn State) and the 10th-ranked Hoosiers (3-0) really look like the toughest tests the No. 3 Buckeyes will face in the regular season.
Day called Saturday’s game “a tale of two halves.” In the first, Ohio State outgained Rutgers 353-83. In the second, the Scarlet Knights gained 290 yards to Ohio State’s 164. And while the Buckeyes did use more backups in the second half, a lot of starters, such as Fields, stayed in.
Day struck the balance between not losing sight of the first-half dominance while also understanding the second-half blahs. The Buckeyes didn’t have the emotion of finally getting to start the season as they did against Nebraska. They didn’t face an expected tough road challenge like they did last week against Penn State.
This was Rutgers in an empty Horseshoe, except for players' families.
“Not to make excuses for our guys,” Day said, “but one of the things that's real is, you go up 35-3 and it's 8:30 or 9 o'clock on a Saturday night. The stadium's empty. There's no juice in the stadium.
“We have to bring our own energy, and that's the challenge for us.”
The Buckeyes’ modified practice schedule this week also may have contributed to the issues. Because the NCAA mandated that Election Day on Tuesday be a day off for players, the Buckeyes practiced Monday.
“A very, very different week coming in on a Monday,” senior linebacker Tuf Borland said. “But that's not really an excuse. We pride ourselves on being a professional, no matter what the circumstances are.”
The Buckeyes do still have work to do. While the passing game is humming, the run game is merely solid. The statistics against Rutgers aren’t bad – 203 yards rushing with a 5.5-yard average.
But that’s a bit deceiving. It includes the 38-yard fake-punt carry by Steele Chambers. The redshirt freshman has looked promising, but he also fumbled on his fourth and final carry. Twenty-five of Master Teague’s 60 yards in 12 carries came on his first run.
As for Trey Sermon, 36 of his 75 yards (in 12 carries) came on his final run. He was hurt on that play, but a source told The Dispatch that Sermon isn’t expected to miss time.
There were other issues. The Buckeyes committed nine penalties for 74 yards, including three holding calls on left guard Harry Miller. Some of Rutgers’ big plays were aided by bad tackling.
“If you asked me at halftime, I’d feel really good,” Day said. “Then after the game, it’s just kind of flat.”
He wanted to watch video to dissect the issues and vowed to focus on practicing better.
“But any win this year, any conference win, is a good one,” Day said. “There's a lot of good things out there so it's not like we're going to sit here and talk about all the bad things.
“That was a good conference win. We're 3-0. We're playing good football. We've got a lot of good players. We came out and played really, really well in the first half. But we're critical (of ourselves), and that's a good thing. We want perfection. We're looking for greatness.”