PISCATAWAY, N.J. – During a season in which Ohio State has dominated its competition week in and week out, Saturday’s 56-21 win over Rutgers can be viewed as mildly underwhelming.
In a game the Buckeyes were favored to win by more than 50 points, they only won by 35 – their lowest margin of victory in six games against Rutgers – and didn’t dominate for four quarters the way they did one week earlier in their 73-14 win over Maryland. After Justin Fields drove Ohio State’s offense down the field for a touchdown on its first possession of the second half to take a 42-7 lead, the Buckeyes and Scarlet Knights were even on the scoreboard – 14-14 – for the rest of the game. Rutgers’ 21 points were the most anyone had scored against the Buckeyes since Florida Atlantic also put up 21 in Ohio State’s season opener, and the Scarlet Knights have scored in any Big Ten game this year.
Ohio State’s starters came out of the game after that opening drive of the third quarter, though, and the Buckeyes had already done everything they needed to do to win the game. Sure, bettors who had money on the Buckeyes might have been disappointed, and they’d like to see their backups finish the game stronger. But at the end of the day, they took care of business, improved to 10-0 on the season and still won by five touchdowns, so Ryan Day wasn’t too concerned.
“It was one of those games that I thought our guys played good in the first half, and then we decided not to play J.K. (Dobbins) in the second half. We came out in that first drive of the third quarter, went right down the field and then decided to go with our twos. There was some sloppiness after that but overall, I thought the guys played really well," Ohio State’s head coach said after the game.
"Some of these games when your starters only play one half of football, it's hard to get a real assessment of what goes on in these games,” Day added. “I’m not gonna put too much stock in it, just gotta move right on and obviously make the corrections off of the film, but we got a lot to focus on moving forward.”
Right now, the Buckeyes can’t afford to spend too much time thinking about how their backups played against Rutgers. What they need to be thinking about, and are already starting to think about, is the game that’s next on their schedule: Penn State.
Considering that the Nittany Lions entered this week at No. 9 in the College Football Playoff rankings, have a 9-1 record this season after beating Indiana on Saturday and have played Ohio State tough for each of the past three years – beating the Buckeyes in 2016, then losing by one point after fourth-quarter comebacks by Ohio State in both 2017 and 2018 – next Saturday’s game at Ohio Stadium against the Nittany Lions looks to be the Buckeyes’ toughest test of the season to date.
“Now all the focus, the minute that game went to zero, is on Penn State and getting ready for this next run,” Day said. “We gotta do everything we can to prepare for this game, and it starts right now. We talked about that and really talked very little about this game (in the locker room postgame). Talked right about preparation, and what this means for this week. So we'll get home tonight, get some rest and then get back in there tomorrow, have a meeting and get right to Penn State.”
Ten games into the season, Ohio State still really hasn’t been tested. The Buckeyes have won all 10 of their games by at least 24 points, marking just the second time in the last century – along with Nebraska in 1971 – that a team has started out a season with that many wins in a row.
That could change in any of Ohio State’s remaining games, starting with the final two regular-season games against Penn State and Michigan, which are arguably both better than any team Ohio State has played this season.
Even though the Buckeyes have sought to prepare for every game the same way, the next two games have stood out on the calendar all year long.
“We’re kind of just focused on one game at a time but at the same time, this is the most important two games of our season,” said Ohio State defensive tackle DaVon Hamilton.
“Now all the focus, the minute that game went to zero, is on Penn State and getting ready for this next run. We gotta do everything we can to prepare for this game, and it starts right now.”– Ryan Day
While winning the rivalry game against Michigan is always a priority for Ohio State, next week’s game holds the highest stakes of the regular season for the Buckeyes, as it is likely to decide who wins the Big Ten East for the fourth year in a row. Ohio State would clinch the division championship and a berth in the Big Ten Championship Game with a win over Penn State, while the Nittany Lions would only need to beat Rutgers to win the division if they beat the Buckeyes.
At home, Ohio State will be favored to beat Penn State, but recent history is enough to ensure that the Buckeyes need to be ready to play full four quarters of great football against the Nittany Lions. They didn’t need to do that on Saturday against Rutgers, and really haven’t had to in any game this season, but they might have to be able to next week in order to keep themselves on track for a conference title and a College Football Playoff berth.
“The way we look at it is kind of a March Madness-type thing,” said Ohio State safety Jordan Fuller. “We got to win every game we play.”
Ohio State's win over Rutgers wasn't quite the beatdown of epic proportions that it was capable of being, but that will soon be forgotten. The Buckeyes are still undefeated, with all of their goals still in front of them, and Saturday’s game – barring a stunning loss or a significant injury – was never going to be a defining game of their season.
Next week’s game, though, certainly will be, and how the Buckeyes play in the third and fourth quarter against the Nittany Lions – most likely with their starters on the field all game – could make or break their season.
"We know what we're getting into,” Hamilton said. “We’ve got a big game coming up, and that’s our big focus. We’ve got to win.”