Ohio State started 2021 off with a bang last week, defeating an underprepared Johns Hopkins squad 14-8. Ohio State, despite its own limitations on practice, looked sharper, hungrier, and more prepared in the opener than we have seen in a while.
It's a great start to what will hopefully be a tremendous season. The past is past, however, which means we now move to the next game against the Scarlet Knights of Rutgers. And it's a doozy.
Despite some struggles overall recently, the last game Ohio State played against Rutgers was an easy victory for the Knights. The Buckeyes got behind big early, and never really looked like they would mount a comeback as Rutgers cruised to a 14-6 win.
Ohio State never got closer than 4 goals to Rutgers, and looked pretty abysmal all game. This year, all the same names are back from that big win, and some good additions, too.
The Rutgers attack unit was good then, and is monstrous now. Adam Charalambides, #8, returns for his 7th season. Kieran Mullins, #4, is back for a COVID year. To top it off, Rutgers added grad transfer Connor Kirst, #1, who came to Piscataway to play a season with his brother, who is Rutgers' starting goalie.
Kirst runs out of the box a little, but against Penn State spent the vast majority of his time on the attack line. Kirst and Charalambides seemed to alternate who would come out of the box over the course of the game. These three players are incredible on their own,and collectively will be a monumental challenge for the Buckeye defense.
Connor Kirst absolutely transforms the Rutgers offensive unit. He can dodge to score (3 goals against Penn State) and dodge to pass (4 assists against PSU). Even with Charalambides and Mullins on the field, the offense flowed through Kirst.
The hard part is that even shutting off Kirst doesn't help that much, as Charalambides and Mullins are more than capable of punishing the Buckeyes 5 on 5. All that said, there's definitely reason to be optimistic.
Despite the big guns, Rutgers shot just 28% as a team (11/40). To be championship-caliber, that number has to be north of 30% over a whole season. Watching the RU-PSU game, neither defense was incredibly inspiring. It was a very sloppy affair by both offenses.
Granted, it's early in the season, so there's not that much data to use in analysis. That said, I feel like Ohio State matches up pretty well this year against Rutgers' best team in years.
In midfield, Rutgers has Connor Kirst there part-time, but also had true freshman Shane Knobloch, #27, contribute two goals to the effort. Knobloch was one of two 4-star commitments Rutgers received from the class of 2020, and had a great debut. He will be a player to watch as Rutgers will look to punish the Bucks away from Kirst, who I am sure will get the majority of the defense's attention.
Also in midfield is David Sprock, #0, who was a 2020 preseason All-B1G player. This duo will be a challenge for the defensive midfield unit, especially if Kirst runs put of the box, though I think Connor Cmiel is a really good player in this matchup. No disrespect to Evan Riss, but I am hoping Cmiel gets the start there.
Watching the game against the Nittany Lions, Rutgers really likes to attack down the alleys (who doesn't) and from X. Connor Kirst split his time between acting as an initiator and playing off-ball as a step down shooter for Shane Knobloch to find.
When the ball went to X, Kieran Mullins took control, hanging up Penn State defenders and looking to dodge or hit someone for a goal. Charalambides, for this game, operated mostly in a Mac O'Keefe role when Ament was there. He looked to shoot off of others' actions or dodges, and had some really devastating goals as a lefty.
Defensively, Rutgers starts Garrett Bullett, #19, Jaryd Jean-Felix, #81, and Bobby Russo, #88 at close D. Bullett was a 2020 preseason all-B1G pick. As a group, the Rutgers defense was pretty good, but not spectacular in game 1. Obviously, game 1 won't be your best outing no matter who you are.
It will be very interesting to see how they choose to guard Jack Myers and Jackson Reid. Reid had a really quiet game against Hopkins, but I think that had a lot to do with the open set Ohio State used. Dodges started at the restraining line, and until it cycled down, there wasn't much for either Myers or Reid to do.
Against Rutgers, I would imagine we will see more of that open set, but less than we saw in game 1. Rutgers has an older defensive corps, and will have had time to gel. I think Myers will be used a lot from X, and that Reid will find himself with more to do from that lefty side of the field.
I don't know that anyone on the midfield unit can match up with both Grant Mitchell and Griffin Hughes. One of those guys is going to be really open most of the day on dodges. If Connor Mitchell and Colby Smith come back, the whole complexion of the game is different. Connor Mitchell's left-handed shooting threat will change things drastically if he is able to go. Should that happen, watch for the Mitchell-to-Mitchell connection to really get moving.
In goal, Colin Kirst joined his brother Connor at Rutgers after 4 years elsewhere, transferring to Piscataway from Lehigh. Kirst had 15 saves in a win over Penn State, and didn't show anything to indicate he only had 11 games at Lehigh under his belt.
I don't know if the 15 saves is indicative of Kirst's ability, or Penn State's struggles without Grant Ament, but Colin got it done. We will see if Leclaire, Mitchell, Hughes, and co. can manage to pour in enough goals to win. My suspicion is they can.
At the faceoff dot, we will see what happens on the Ohio State side. Justin Inacio was mysteriously absent from the Hopkins game. Rutgers starts Justin DuGenio, #91, at FOGO, who nearly went 50% against Gerard Arceri of Penn State. The Buckeyes platooned FOGO last week, with Terefenko taking the most draws.
I don't know how sustainable that is. It's a rough position, and you can't let your best player get knocked out for the year because an overzealous LSM breaks his wrist going for a groundball. If Inacio is back, things will definitely be better, but it will depend on what ailed Inacio or kept him out.
I think the Buckeyes will be fine, given how well the platoon worked against Johns Hopkins. The bigger issue is whether they can keep Terefenko healthy long enough for Inacio to get back.
Holistically, this is a great matchup that will be very interesting to watch unfold. Rutgers' offense is legitimately good, though just how good they are remains to be seen. Conversely, Ohio State's offense looked very good against Johns Hopkins, but what level that is remains unclear. Both teams have opposing strengths and weaknesses, so we will find out quickly just how much work there is to do for Ohio State.
Watching the teams play a couple times each, I feel Ohio State has a slim advantage coming into this week's matchup, not least because the game is at home. Look for a big game from Jack Myers and Grant Mitchell, while Johnny Wiseman gets his first goal of 2021.
Final prediction: Ohio State 13, Rutgers 11.
Game is on BTN+ at noon eastern.