Ohio State vs. Rutgers Notebook: Several Starters Sidelined By Injuries, Jermaine Mathews Jr. and Malik Hartford Step Up in Secondary and Jesse Mirco’s Fake Punt Run Wasn’t Called

By Andy Anders and Dan Hope on November 4, 2023 at 10:35 pm
Tommy Eichenberg and Cade Stover
Adam Cairns/Columbus Dispatch/USA TODAY Network

Cade Stover and a healthy – or unhealthy, more like – serving of defensive players dealt with injuries that either knocked them out of Saturday’s game against Rutgers or kept them playing altogether.

Safety Lathan Ransom and cornerback Denzel Burke were both designated as out on the team’s status report prior to the game, but Ohio State’s secondary suffered a third blow when Josh Proctor left the contest after helping make one of the game’s biggest plays.

As Rutgers quarterback Gavin Wimsatt attempted a third-quarter pass over the middle to running back Kyle Monangai, Proctor leveled a hit on the ballcarrier that popped the throw up into the air.

Jordan Hancock intercepted the batted ball and ran it back 93 yards the other way for a go-ahead touchdown, giving the Buckeyes a 14-9 lead with 9:49 to play in the third quarter.

Proctor remained on the field for a few minutes after delivering said blow. He eventually sat up and was escorted into Ohio State’s medical tent by the team’s training staff, but he emerged without his helmet and did not return to action for the Buckeyes.

The Ohio State safety said after the game that his “head was ringing a little bit,” but the fact that he met with media at all was a sign that Proctor did not suffer a serious head injury. He said he wanted to reenter the game but that the medical staff made the decision to hold him out for precautionary reasons.

“I was a little frustrated (I couldn’t go back in). I felt OK. But it was probably best for me to sit out.”– Josh Proctor

Day said after the game that he didn’t know yet when Ransom and Burke will be able to return.

Tommy Eichenberg, the “quarterback” of Ohio State’s defense as described by Jim Knowles, was also seen going back to the locker room late in the fourth quarter. He didn't play on the defense's final series; he returned to the Buckeyes’ sideline before the end of the game, but did not have his helmet with him and was seen with ice wrapped around his arm after the game.

If Eichenberg has to miss any time, the Buckeyes would likely roll with a linebacker tandem of Cody Simon and Steele Chambers, who have rotated next to Eichenberg at Will linebacker, though Simon has also spent time playing Mike linebacker.

On the offensive side of the football, Ohio State regained wide receiver Emeka Egbuka after he missed three games with an ankle injury but didn’t have the services of Stover, its starting tight end who had previously been on pace for a school record in receiving yards from the position.

Stover was not listed on the pregame injury report and went through warmups with the Buckeyes, but was wearing a brace throughout the day on a knee that he initially injured against Penn State. Day said he expects Stover to be back for next week’s game against Michigan State.

"He was available and could have played, but we just didn’t feel like it wasn’t the right thing to do for him," Day said. "You talk about one of the tougher guys that we’ve been around at Ohio State in my time here – he’s going to say he can go. It was the decision made to hold him back and we’ll look forward to getting him back next week."

In Stover’s absence, Gee Scott Jr. caught three passes for 24 yards and a touchdown but also dropped a third-down pass that would have gone for a first down. With Joe Royer also sidelined by injury, walk-on Patrick Gurd served as Scott’s backup against Rutgers and also saw playing time throughout the game. Day praised both of them for how they played in place of Stover.

“I gotta give Gee Scott and Pat Gurd some credit for stepping in,” Day said. “For those guys to step up and play well, I think they played well, at least it seemed like it.”

Mathews, Hartford freshman fill-ins for secondary

With three starters sidelined in the secondary by the end of the game, Ohio State called upon the services of two freshmen to help fill those voids.

Jermaine Mathews Jr. made his first career start with the Buckeyes in place of Burke and held up well in coverage as Rutgers tested him deep early in the game. He finished the contest with three tackles, one of them solo.

It’s the second time Mathews has seen meaningful reps for Ohio State this season, though the first was on an even bigger stage in the Buckeyes’ top-10 showdown against Penn State on Oct. 21. With Burke also out in that game, Mathews rotated with Jordan Hancock at the spot and made three tackles with a pass breakup on a third-down deep shot from the Nittany Lions.

Hancock started at nickel against Rutgers while Sonny Styles, who started Ohio State’s first seven games of the year at nickel, started at strong safety in place of Ransom.

Freshman safety Malik Hartford stepped in for Proctor after his third-quarter exit. Playing the high-pressure spot of free safety, the first-year native Ohioan made both a tackle and a pass breakup.

Hartford previously started in place of Proctor when Proctor was unavailable for the Youngstown State game in Week 2, but he was replaced by Ja’Had Carter after the Buckeyes’ first defensive series of that contest. Carter, who suffered an injury in kickoff coverage against Penn State, did not play against Rutgers even though he made the trip to Piscataway and was not listed on the pregame injury report.

“Those guys are good players, they’re going to be great players. You show your mettle early in your career when you can step up for the team in a big game, and we’re confident in them.”– Jim Knowles on Jermaine Mathews Jr. and Malik Hartford

Stokes, Simpson-Hunt make season debuts

With the depth chart depleted by injuries, two other young Ohio State defensive backs also took their first snaps of the season against Rutgers on Saturday.

Sophomore safety Kye Stokes and freshman cornerback Calvin Simpson-Hunt both played against the Scarlet Knights, though neither registered a statistic in the box score.

Stokes, who appeared in nine games as a true freshman but had not seen action this season until Saturday, played briefly as part of a dime package for Ohio State, coming onto the field as a sixth defensive back as Rutgers went to a package with more receivers on offense.

Simpson-Hunt saw his first action as a Buckeye on special teams, getting reps on the punt return and kickoff coverage units.

Both Stokes and Simpson-Hunt still have three games available to play and still maintain their redshirts for this year as Ohio State enters its final three contests of the regular season.

Mirco’s fake punt wasn’t called

For the second year in a row, Jesse Mirco ran a fake punt against Rutgers that wasn’t called by Ohio State’s head coach.

While Mirco’s decision to run for a first down against the Scarlet Knights in 2022 ruffled feathers because Ohio State was up 49-10, this year’s fake punt run attempt could have had a more significant impact on the outcome of the game. Ohio State’s lead was only 7-3 at the time, and Mirco’s takeoff on 4th-and-5, which went for a gain of only two yards, gave Rutgers the ball back at Ohio State’s own 32-yard line. It led directly to a Scarlet Knights field goal and ultimately a 9-7 Rutgers lead at halftime.

Mirco’s run appeared to be a designed fake, as multiple Buckeyes began running to the left to block for Mirco as he took off in that direction. But Day said after the game that he did not call for a fake punt, though he declined to elaborate on why Mirco ended up trying to run for a first down.

“It was not a fake punt. It was a miscommunication on that, and that can't happen.”– Ryan Day

That wasn’t the first time this season that Ohio State ran an inadvertent fake punt. In the Buckeyes’ fifth game of the year against Maryland, an errant snap by John Ferlmann led to Cody Simon being stopped for a 3-yard loss and a turnover on downs on 4th-and-2, giving the ball back to the Terrapins at the Ohio State 30-yard line and leading to a touchdown.

McCord breaks school record

No Ohio State quarterback has ever completed more passes in a row than Kyle McCord did between the second half of the Wisconsin game and the start of the Rutgers game.

After completing all seven of his second-half passing attempts against Wisconsin – not including a pair of intentional grounding penalties, which are counted as sacks rather than pass attempts – McCord completed his first 11 consecutive passing attempts against Rutgers, bringing him to a school-record total of 18 straight pass completions between the two games.

C.J. Stroud previously set the record for most consecutive completions with 17 straight completed passes in Ohio State’s 56-7 win over Michigan State in 2021.

Despite his record-setting start to the game, McCord fell short of 200 passing yards for the first time in any game this season as his 19 completions on 26 attempts went for only 189 yards. His 73.1 completion percentage was his second-best of the season, however, while his three touchdown passes matched his season-high.

McCord’s lower passing yardage came in part because of the way Rutgers chose to defend Ohio State. As Day noted after the game, Rutgers played most of the game with their safeties dropped deep in coverage, which left fewer opportunities to take shots down the field and led to more checkdowns for McCord. But McCord hopes his hot start to the game in terms of consecutive completions is something he and Ohio State’s passing offense can build off of, even though that streak only led to one first-half touchdown for the Buckeyes in Piscataway.

“I found some good completions early on and got in a rhythm. Although a lot of the 11 passes weren't down-the-field shots, I think they kept us on schedule,” McCord said. “I think the biggest thing is just continuing to replicate that regardless of if they're playing coverage or allowing us to take shots on the field.”

Harrison scores twice (again)

In terms of receptions and yards, Marvin Harrison Jr. didn’t have the kind of day he needed to elevate his Heisman Trophy campaign as he caught only four passes for 25 yards against the Scarlet Knights. But the two touchdown catches he had in the fourth quarter will help keep him in the running.

The first of those touchdowns was the kind of catch that has made Harrison one of college football’s biggest stars. Against tight coverage from Rutgers cornerback Robert Longerbeam, Harrison spun back around to the ball and made a leaping grab over the defender while getting one foot down just inside the left boundary of the end zone for a 4-yard touchdown.

Two drives later, Harrison scored the final points of Ohio State’s 35-16 victory with another touchdown catch against Longerbeam – who had not given up a touchdown catch all year – from two yards out.

Nine games into Ohio State’s 2023 season, Harrison has now caught 52 passes for 914 yards and 10 touchdowns. The Rutgers game was Harrison’s third two-touchdown game of the season and the eighth multi-touchdown game of his Ohio State career overall.

With 27 total career touchdowns, Harrison is now tied with Cris Carter for the fourth-most receiving touchdowns in Ohio State history. He’s the third Ohio State receiver to have two different seasons with 10 or more touchdown catches, joining Chris Olave and David Boston.

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