Rutgers faces Buckeyes on day of homecoming at Ohio State for fans, opposing coaches
Homecoming at Ohio State falls on the first day of October, the second month of a season the Buckeyes' have started by winning its first three games.
As per tradition, thousands of alumni, former players and coaches will flock to Ohio Stadium, returning to their former stomping grounds as No. 2 Ohio State aims to reach the College Football Playoff for the second time in three years.
Far from traditional, the head coach of the opposition is one of the former Buckeyes returning to the Horseshoe, but make no mistake — Chris Ash isn’t taking a trip to the Midwest to win Homecoming King.
“It's not about me,” Ash said in his weekly press conference previewing his toughest challenge yet since taking over the Rutgers football program. “It's about us preparing our football team to continue to get better and go play against a great opponent. That's all I'm worried about. Yeah, it's great that we're going back to Ohio State. It's a tremendous place. Love a lot of people there. But we are focused on getting our football team to get to play as good as it possibly can be and that's it.”
Ash noted the times he was an opposing coach at the Shoe in his time with Wisconsin, but this trip is his first time back since the two-year spell he had as the defensive coordinator under Urban Meyer prior to arriving in Piscataway, where he won a national championship in 2014.
He’s not alone in that department — offensive coordinator Drew Mehringer, special teams coordinator Vince Okruch, defensive backs coach Bill Busch, running backs coach Zak Kuhr and strength and conditioning coach Kenny Parker all spent time with the Buckeyes under Meyer.
But while Ash did concede he and his staff can share some of the wisdom they gathered in their time in Columbus, it’s up to the players to use the knowledge and execute the gameplan in order for the Knights to have success.
“I mean, I know the players, but it's not about me knowing the players,” Ash said. “I can know the players all I want, doesn't matter, our players have to know the players and matchups and the guys that they are going to go against. They are going to have to go out and execute the call in all three phases. That's what matters.”
Ohio State enters the contest off a statement win over preseason national title favorite Oklahoma, emphatically defeating the Sooners 45-21 in Norman.
Senior quarterback JT Barrett is the Buckeyes’ standout player this season and with good reason — he ranks first in the Big Ten in pass efficiency and fourth in total offense coming off a bye week — but it was a New Jersey native who stole the show in Oklahoma.
Sophomore wide receiver and Pope John XXIII High School product Noah Brown tied a program-record with four touchdown receptions, including a circus catch off the back of Michiah Quick to end the first half that may very well be the play of the season.
“He had one heck of a game against OU, didn’t he?” Busch said when asked about Brown after practice Wednesday. “I know the young man a little bit, know he’s a great person and obviously a great player. The thing that stands out the most about his is his competitive spirit and his strong hands, how he can go up and grab balls and take balls away from people.”
Brown, Barrett and the Ohio State offense present a threat as big, if not larger than the one the Knights faced in Seattle against No. 8 Washington in its season opener.
After allowing touchdowns passes of 43, 38 and 50 yards and a total 290 yards through the air against the Huskies, Rutgers held Howard, New Mexico and Iowa to 103, 169 and 162 passing yards, respectively.
The performances have dropped its average passing yards allowed per game to 180.8, good for fourth in the Big Ten and nearly a full 100-yards down from the 275.9 per game it allowed last season.
“I was very happy with, especially in the Iowa game, we tackled well,” Busch said. “I’ve been happy with our progress but it’s just a constant work in progress … we just need to keep focus and stress … strain and tackling.”
While the pass defense has progressed immensely since the Knights’ 48-13 loss to the Huskies, the rush defense hasn’t seen as much improvement.
After holding Washington — a primarily pass-first offense — to 91 yards, Rutgers was gashed for 152 yards in the first half against the Bison in its next game. Though it held Howard to negative two-yards rushing in the second half, the Knights conceded 293 yards to New Mexico’s triple-option attack the following week before conceding 190 yards on the ground to Iowa, which runs a traditional pro-style, power run offense.
The Knights will face a spread offense — and 4-3 defense — Ash and his staff modeled their style of play after on Saturday.
But rather than having junior quarterback Chris Laviano behind center, the Buckeyes will have Heisman Trophy candidate Barrett, who gathered 484 yards in two matchups against Rutgers in each of the last two seasons, including a pair of 100-yard rushing days in two very lopsided contests.
Alongside Barrett will be either Mike Weber, the second leading rusher in the conference behind junior Knight Robert Martin, or Curtis Samuel, the conference leader in all-purpose yards per game that Ash called Ohio State’s “version of Janarion Grant,” in his weekly radio show Wednesday.
And perhaps the most interesting element of the game due to the fact of it being out of the players’ control is the atmosphere created by the crowd. The third largest stadium in the United States houses 104,944 and will most certainly a raucous environment.
The evening figures to be emotional for all involved — from Ash's return to the Shoe to former Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano, who filled in for Ash as a co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State, facing the program he built from the ground up for the first time — but some hope to hold them in until the festivities are sure to land in their team’s favor.
“I’d be lying to you if I told you if there weren’t some emotions,” Okruch said of returning to the Shoe. “Am I excited to see those people again? Yeah, it’d be great to say hello. It’d be even better if we find a way to win a football game.”