Consider it a statement made.
Two days before kickoff in Piscataway, New Jersey, Ryan Day said Ohio State was a different team than the one that lost to Oregon in Week 2. Up until Saturday, the Buckeyes could not validate that assertion. A disappointing win against Tulsa would certainly not do it, and even a 59-7 demolition of Akron couldn’t convince anyone for sure.
It took a legitimate Big Ten opponent – albeit one that Ohio State has historically dominated – for the Buckeyes to change the way they were thought about in the college football landscape this season. Against Rutgers, Ohio State did exactly that.
“This was an important game for us, because I felt like September 2nd, a month ago, when we played Minnesota, we were a much different team. And I felt like that going into this week, but we hadn’t shown it yet,” Day said after the game. “I felt like we saw some glimpses of that tonight.”
A 45-6 halftime score would not have seemed out of place in any of the Buckeyes’ past seven matchups with Rutgers, but the 2021 iteration of Rutgers entered Saturday considered perhaps the best Scarlet Knights team since it joined the Big Ten in 2014. Just one week ago, Greg Schiano and company gave Michigan all it could handle in a 20-13 loss that only raised Rutgers’ profile as a tough out in the Big Ten East.
In all of Ohio State’s blowout wins over far inferior Rutgers teams of the past decade, it never scored as many first-half points as it did Saturday, as the Buckeyes finished with a 52-14 win and racked up 530 yards of total offense on the day.
“We finally got back to playing Ohio State football,” senior wide receiver Chris Olave said after the game. “I’m glad we got the win.”
With some critics still holding onto doubts about C.J. Stroud, the redshirt freshman had the finest performance of his young career Saturday. After missing last week’s Akron game with a shoulder injury, leaving the door open for Kyle McCord to capture hearts and imaginations, Stroud returned with 330 yards, five touchdowns and just six incompletions to firmly shut the door on any such notions moving forward.
“That’s the C.J. we saw in fall camp, summer,” Chris Olave said after the game. “He came out there, he had some rest on his shoulder, so he felt like he was 100 percent. He was slinging it today.”
Stroud got his entire array of weapons involved in a manner he hadn’t quite been able to in his first three starts. After catching just two passes in the past two games combined, Olave had a vintage showing against Rutgers, finishing with five catches for 119 yards and two touchdowns.
But Olave’s big game did not mean less production for Ohio State’s other receivers. Garrett Wilson had 71 yards and a touchdown of his own, and Jaxon Smith-Njigba made multiple big plays to close the evening out with 66 yards.
The tight ends factored in as well, as Jeremy Ruckert caught his first touchdown of the season, but not until Mitch Rossi got in the end zone for the first score of his Buckeye career. Even Gee Scott Jr. hauled in a pair of passes to give Ohio State three tight ends with a reception.
Ohio State’s passing success hardly came at the expense of the running game, as starting running back TreVeyon Henderson started the scoring off with a 44-yard touchdown run on just the second offensive snap of the game for the Buckeyes. If there was a negative takeaway for Ohio State in the game, it was that Henderson wasn’t able to run for any more touchdowns, as the true freshman left the game in the first quarter after absorbing a big hit.
“It was my decision to hold him out the second half,” Day said. “He was ready to go.”
Before Saturday’s game, the Rutgers defense ranked No. 2 overall in the Big Ten in total defense and its pass defense was the best in the conference.
It was the Buckeyes’ own defensive effort that may have been the most impressive of all, despite Rutgers coming in without much in the way of prolific credentials against Power 5 competition. Ohio State gave up just six points through the first three quarters, with a fourth-quarter touchdown coming against the Buckeye backups.
Ohio State has now given up just 20 total points in the past two games.
“Handling a loss the second game of the year and those type of things has made us stronger. And I think we can continue to build on this, that’s been the whole goal,” Day said. “If we just get better week in and week out, continue to get these guys reps, keep coaching better and giving our guys a better opportunity to be successful, then hopefully we pick our head up here in about a month where we need to be going into November.”
The Ohio State secondary came up with its third pick-six in as many games, as Denzel Burke returned a Noah Vedral pass 23 yards for a touchdown that put Rutgers in a 14-0 hole before even four minutes had ticked off the clock at SHI Stadium.
Even before that, the Buckeye defense snuffed out a fake punt attempt on the opening Rutgers drive, and proceeded to turn the Scarlet Knights over on downs three more times thereafter. On what looked like the most impressive sustained drive of the game for Rutgers to that point in the third quarter, Tommy Eichenberg picked off a fourth-down pass from Vedral in Ohio State territory.
The Eichenberg pick, which came at the 4:18 mark of the third quarter, marked the final ride for the Buckeye first-teamers on either side of the ball. In fact, Day’s decision not to pull them at halftime may have had more to do with getting his young starters more experience than it did the final result of the ballgame.
Three turnovers was the final tally for the Ohio State defense, which only allowed two Rutgers trips to the red zone for the day.
“It’s just a bunch of guys who are now maybe expecting to make plays,” Day said. “Before, I don’t think they really – they were just trying to get lined up, and everything they were doing was for the first time. I thought the defensive staff did a good job this week with the plan, I thought they mixed up the looks, I thought we created disruption in the backfield and then we were able to create some turnovers.”
Given the strides made by Rutgers this season, Ohio State finally got the measuring stick it needed on Saturday. Skeptics may stop short of announcing that the Buckeyes put the conference on notice, with a host of undefeated conference foes still lurking about with more impressive resumes.
But the Buckeyes have now put an exclamation point on their past two performances, as clear changes in confidence and execution have been put on display.
“Having a win like this, of the last month, it’s given us a little bit of juice now as we head into the next month of October,” Day said. “There were some tough times here, but we grew through it, we didn’t panic, and now we might have a good team as we head into October and November.”