Rutgers' path to upset over Ohio State starts and ends with containing J.T. Barrett
The Rutgers football team was going to need to play a near flawless all-around game to pull off an upset in its Big Ten opener against Iowa last weekend.
The Scarlet Knights (2-2, 0-1) put forth a season-best effort on the defensive side of the ball, but a 25 percent conversion rate (one of four) in the red zone and a late turnover from their offense spoiled the Knights’ bid at an upset over the Hawkeyes (3-1, 1-0) in a 14-7 loss.
While it came in a losing effort, Rutgers did have something to hang its hat on; playing a complete game of stout defense against a more-than-capable Iowa offense.
In the first three games of the season the Knights surrendered an average of 19.6 points on 188 points in first quarters alone. But Rutgers finally shook its slow-start bug against the Hawkeyes, not allowing a score on 68 yards in the first quarter and holding Iowa to 14 points on 355 yards (162 passing and 193 rushing) of offense for the game.
As the Knights trek to Columbus, Ohio, Saturday for the middle leg of a daunting three-game in-conference stretch, they will need another robust performance from their defense if they have any hopes of taking down No. 2 Ohio State (3-0).
But trying to replicate that kind of defensive performance against the Buckeyes will be a very tall task.
Rutgers will be a pitted up against a completely different, and more explosive, offense than what it saw from Iowa last week. Instead of a methodical, run heavy power offense that the Hawkeyes rolled out, the Buckeyes utilize their stable of lethal skill position players in a power-spread attack.
Quarterbacked and propelled by dual-threat J.T. Barrett, the Buckeyes pace the Big Ten in points per game (56.7), rushing offense (306 yards per game), total offense (545.3 yards per game) and are second in passing offense (239.3 yards per game).
"(Ohio State uses) a lot of formations, spread the field and isolate their athletes one-on-one in match-ups that they like," said defensive coordinator Jay Niemann. "They're a very good running team, a very complete offense ... Very talented."
Barrett, a Heisman Candidate, is the engine that powers Ohio State’s explosive offensive attack. On the year Barrett has 174 rushing yards and three touchdowns across 39 attempts. And as imposing as Barrett's abilities are on the ground are, he's just one part of a three-headed monster the Buckeyes deploy out of the backfield.
Their leading rusher this season has been Mike Weber, who's tallied 352 yards and one touchdown across 54 attempts. Ohio State also works in Curtis Samuel, who does most of his damage out of the backfield as a receiver (16 catches for 259 yards and two touchdowns), but has also gained the second most rushing yards on the team (262) along with two touchdowns.
No matter what decisions Barrett makes out of read-option runs the ball is going to wind up in the hands of a dangerous playmaker, which makes it hard for a defense to simply key in on the Buckeyes' quarterback.
"(JT Barrett is a) great quarterback, great player," said senior linebacker Greg Jones. "I mean he's obviously an athlete and a handful."
And don’t let Barrett’s impressive numbers on the ground lead you to believe he’s a slouch in the passing game either. In fact, Barrett leads all Big Ten quarterbacks in passer efficiency rating at 184.38, while throwing for 650 yards and 10 touchdowns on a 67.1 completion percentage.
His favorite downfield target this season has been Noah Brown. The Flanders, New Jersey, native has just nine catches for 154 yards this season, but five of his receptions have come for touchdowns.
With his mobility and elusiveness Barrett has the ability to move around in the pocket to extend plays, allowing his receivers to break off their initial routes' and find holes that open up in the secondary.
"You just have to be that much more disciplined, as far as your eyes," said sophomore cornerback Blessuan Austin on playing against a quarterback that can extend plays. "If you're in man coverage you have to stay on your man. If you're in zone you have to stay in your zone. Knowing that he's a guy that can scramble around, make things happen. You just have to be more disciplined as a secondary.”
So how do you go about shutting down a do-all Heisman-worthy quarterback like J.T. Barrett?
"You can't allow him to dictate your game,” Jones said. “He's gonna be just like any other quarterback if you do your job."
Easier said than done.
Although it came under a different coaching staff, J.T. Barrett has had a field day against the Knights when he's been matched up against them over the past two seasons. In two games Barrett has carved up Rutgers for 484 yards from scrimmage, while eclipsing 100 yards rushing in each game.
Chris Ash was in person both times Barrett and the Buckeyes ran ramped over the Knights, serving as co-defensive coordinator at Ohio State. Now in the fold as Rutgers' head football coach, Ash, along with his defensive staff, will attempt to scheme around stopping Barrett and the Buckeyes for the first time in a game situation.
With the talent they have on the offensive side of the ball the Buckeyes are bound to accumulate yards and points no matter who they're matched up against. But it will be the Knights' task to somehow limit Ohio State in those categories to keep the Buckeyes from running away with the game.
"You just gotta figure out by down-and-distance and situation what you're trying to take away," Niemann said. "And if you've done that on a particular play and get beat by another facet of their offense you just have to live with that. And that's the thing when you play against a team like Ohio State that has so many different weapons. People say, 'well how do you go about trying to stop them'. Well, you have to decide what you're trying to take away and if something else hurts you, you gotta make adjustments."
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