Q: Can a 49-27 win be unimpressive?
A: Yes. See Rutgers @ Ohio State, 11/07/2020.
Part of the reason the score was unimpressive is that Rutgers left eleven easy points on the field. Rutgers attempted 2-point conversions after each of their four touchdowns, and they failed each time. And in the final minute of the game, Rutgers had the ball first-and-goal from the 2-yard line against the Buckeyes' reserve defenders, and their third-string QB fumbled the ball away without even getting hit. Give Rutgers those eleven easy points and it becomes a 49-38 game. It looked like a 49-38 game. It felt like a 49-38 game.
Another reason the win was unimpressive was the effort level by Ohio State. The Buckeyes lost the battle of the trenches all night long, and quite frankly they seemed bored and even entitled for much of the game. I get it - the Mighty Mighty Buckeyes don't want to play Lowly Rutgers in an empty Horseshoe on a Saturday night. They didn't want to be there. They'd rather be doing something else. But you know who did want to be there, and who wanted to do nothing else but play to a crowd of cardboard cutouts? Rutgers, that's who. The Scarlet Knights were hungry, they were aggressive, they were smart, and, thanks to their coaches, they were innovative. Rutgers had no real chance to win last night - Ohio State was simply too talented to allow that to happen - but they played one Hell of a game. And they made Ohio State look unimpressive.
Now on to some specific news and notes:
1. Justin Fields once again played like a future Heisman winner, completing 24 of 28 passes for 314 yards, with 5 touchdowns and no interceptions. No complaints here.
2. The primary beneficiaries of Fields's largesse were, as usual, Garrett Wilson (6 receptions, 104 yards, TD) and Chris Olave (5 receptions, 64 yards, 2 TDs). Jameson Williams caught just one pass, but it was a 38-yard touchdown for the Buckeyes' first score. Julian Fleming added a 27-yard reception but also had an obvious dropped pass (one of Fields's four incompletions on the night). Tight end Jeremy Ruckert had 4 receptions for 29 yards and another TD deep in the red zone (7 yards).
3. As Mark Twain famously said: "There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." If you look at the statistics, the Buckeye running backs had a great game last night: 30 carries for 191 yards (6.4 average), with three runs of 25+ yards (each by a different back) and a touchdown. Then you look more closely at the numbers: Master Teague's 25-yard run came on the first offensive play of the game; Steele Chamber's 38-yard run came on a fake punt; Trey Sermon's 36-yard run came in garbage time, on Ohio State's second last offensive play of the game (their last offensive play was a fumble by Chambers on first-and-goal with 4:38 left on the clock). Take out the two big runs that bracketed the game action, and the fake punt trickeration, and the running backs don't look quite so hot: 27 carries, 92 yards, 3.4 average. Five rushes went for negative yards, and ten others went for two yards or less.
4. On the plus side of the equation, the running backs caught 4 passes for 48 yards. I don't know if those outlet passes were part of the game plan or if Justin Fields is becoming more adept at finding his 3rd/4th option and taking what the defense is giving him.
5. The offensive line played a bad game. The interior of the line, which is supposed to be their strength, had an especially rough night. The line had four holding penalties, three by Harry Miller, one by Wyatt Davis. Rutgers had two sacks and six other TFLs. Defensive tackles Julius Turner (3 TFLs) and Michael Dwumfour (a Michigan castoff) seemed to blow up half the Buckeyes' plays. Thanks to the all the penalties and negative plays, Ohio State faced 2nd-and-10+ an incredible ten times last night. Fortunately, when you have Justin Fields throwing to Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, down and distance are pretty much irrelevant.
6. The Buckeye defense did just enough to hold the large early lead and win the game. The defense gave up three touchdowns (Rutgers's fourth came on a punt return), which is disturbing enough, but a deeper dive into the numbers paints an even uglier picture. Rutgers's four scoring drives went as follows: 9 plays, 63 yards, FG; 6 plays, 91 yards, TD; 13 plays, 65 yards, TD; 9 plays, 64 yards, TD. And their final drive, which ended in a fortuitous unforced fumble in the red zone, covered 82 yards on 21 plays. In other words, Rutgers scored no cheap touchdowns and the Ohio State defense couldn't get off the field.
7. In terms of specific performances, Baron Browning (5 tackles, TFL) seemed to have a good game, Marcus Hooker (2 tackles) seemed to have a bad game. Shaun Wade got beat for another touchdown when Rutgers tight end Jovani Haskins made a great catch in the end zone. Wade's coverage was solid, and he got his hands on the football, but the larger and stronger Haskins simply outmuscled him and made an exceptional play. Even the best cornerbacks are going to get beat from time to time, but a great corner has to win his share of 50/50 balls and Wade hasn't done much of that this season. And that's why he's been on the wrong end of at least three highlight reel plays in the first three games.
8. Punter Drue Chrisman had three punts downed inside the 10-yard line. His fourth punt was returned 58 yards for a touchdown.
9. Ohio State had 517 yards of total offense (to 373 yards for Rutgers); won the time of possession battle, 31:09 to 28:51; and converted 8/13 (61.5%) on 3rd and 4th downs. On the negative side of the ledger, the Buckeyes had 9 penalties for 74 yards, and the defense allowed Rutgers to convert 10/20 (50.0%) on 3rd and 4th downs.
10. Give credit to the Rutgers coaching staff for creative game plans - offense, defense, and special teams - and to the Scarlet Knights for executing them nearly to perfection. No credit to the Ohio State coaches, who apparently didn't think that former Buckeye DC Greg Schiano was going to pull out all stops to win the game, nor to the Buckeye players who fell for every trick, misdirection, and sleight of hand that Rutgers threw at them. Even the cardboard cutouts knew that Rutgers couldn't hang with Ohio State by playing a conventional game, that their only chance to win (or even keep the game close) was to take risks (and lots of them). In the end, talent won out (as talent usually does), but there should be plenty of embarrassment in the WHAC after last night's under-performance.
11. Specific credit goes to Rutgers wide receiver Bo Melton, who had 7 receptions for 86 yards, as well as a 58-yard touchdown on a punt return where he received the ball on a lateral from a teammate (one of the many successful trick plays). Running back Isaih Pacheco had a 66-yard run on another trick play that set up Rutgers first touchdown (which was scored on yet another trick play, a lateral to offensive tackle Raiqwon O'Neal). As a Wisconsin Badger last season, wide receiver Aron Cruickshank gained 45 yards against Ohio State on a pair of jet sweeps; he continued his success as a Scarlet Knight with a 22-yard jet sweep to go along with 7 receptions for 50 yards. Linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi had 13 tackles and 2 TFLs.
12. Right now, Ohio State looks too good to lose to anybody in a down Big Ten, but not nearly good enough to beat anyone of substance in the playoffs. Yes, we're only three games into a season that has been strange, to say the least, so we could see this team suddenly gel at any time during the next month and roll into the postseason as an unstoppable juggernaut. Next week, Ohio State plays a motivated and athletic Maryland team on the road. That would be a good time for Ohio State to start gelling, because another sloppy, disinterested performance like last night's might very well lead to the Buckeyes getting upset.
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