COLUMBUS, Ohio - When's the last time a game where Rutgers faced Ohio State was taken completely seriously as a potentially good contest?
It's been quite a while since one of these contests was close, but this Scarlet Knights' team might be the best one the Buckeyes have faced in recent years. Even with largely inconsistent quarterback play, Rutgers has put forth competitive games against the likes of Washington and Nebraska this year.
Given how Nebraska has played to start the season, that one should not be a huge surprise. But, it's clear that Chris Ash has caught onto something, regardless of the 1-3 record his team currently possesses.
Sure, this is Ohio State's game to lose, and the Buckeyes have already put forth a poor product once in primetime. Still, the 3.3 percent chance ESPN is giving Rutgers to actually win seems a bit much.
Sam Hubbard, Nick Bosa and Tyquan Lewis can take over this game with the struggling Kyle Bolin at the helm for Rutgers. Things could get ugly, but not so ugly that Ohio State puts things away early.
Here are three things I've seen leading up to Saturday's game, two questions that still need answered, and my final prediction before kickoff.
THREE OBSERVATIONS FROM AVAILABILITY THIS WEEK
1 - Mike Weber should finally get some love
Mike Weber has been itching to get the ball in his hands all season. Urban Meyer poked fun at Weber, saying when he showed up to Ohio State it was a struggle to get Weber to even "walk across the road."
After receiving praise for getting faster and running with more aggression in the offseason, fans have only seen Weber in a limited role due to his hamstring issue that just won't go away. However, the second-year back is finally ready to fully go in a game.
"Weber is cleared, and he'll play," Meyer said Monday.
Granted, he might have to take a back seat to freshman phenom J.K. Dobbins, who burst onto the college football scene and is ranked sixth in the nation in rushing yards. The dilemma for offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson is how to split carries between his two top-notch backs.
The situation should dictate how many carries go to each man, but a relatively fresh Weber, who only has seven carries this season, could be an x-factor.
2 - Wilson licking his chops
UNLV stuck to their proverbial guns by sticking to press-man coverage on defense last Saturday. Clearly, that did not work.
J.T. Barrett was accurate, and Ohio State's wide receivers broke away from undersized cornerbacks with ease. With conference play on the horizon, Wilson is expecting more of the same.
"You are playing in the Big Ten now. They are going to play man coverage, on the outside in particular on almost every play," Wilson said Wednesday. "Saturdays in the Big Ten, every play is going to be challenged."
Wilson might be right in saying there are more chances for the defensive backfield to make plays while in man coverage, but the results from last week are hard to argue. The Buckeyes blew apart UNLV's man defense.
The competition is stiffer, and the games will get progressively harder as the season wears on, but there is reason to believe Ohio State's passing offense can enjoy similar success against Rutgers man defense if Wilson and company play their cards right.
He must be giddy knowing Ohio State likely won't see eight men in coverage again.
3 - Wide receiver camaraderie
Ohio State wide receivers looked in compete disarray early on, but things are looking up for Zach Smith's unit.
Not only do routes look cleaner, and confidence appear to be high, but there is also a lot more smiles and laughs going around among the pass catchers. On Wednesday, as K.J. Hill sat down to be interviewed, Parris Campbell and Johnnie Dixon came over and crashed his party.
The chemistry between the three cannot be denied, and don't forget about Terry McLaurin. So far, wide receivers account for 11 of the 12 Ohio State passing touchdowns, seven of which going to the four names above.
Clearly, the group has found some level of chemistry with Barrett that seemed to be lacking early on. And that camaraderie is paying off big for the offense.
TWO UNANSWERED QUESTIONS
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1 - Little C.J. Saunders impact
Walk-on wide receiver C.J. Saunders is not exactly a typical Meyer receiver. He's not big enough to block, and is not big enough to shrug off many tackles.
His big game against UNLV might make some fans clamor to see what the little guy can do, but Meyer has been dispelling those murmurs.
"He's not playing when it counts. And he has the ability too. He's just not ... we've had that happen here with Dontre (Wilson)," Meyer said. "What do you do with them? Say, oh, by the way, you don't have to really just fall down on this play, because we are going to be a balanced team. But we're working on him, because he's got the skill set. He's got the mindset. He comes from a coach's family. He's a tough guy. Just gotta get stronger."
Saunders relatively diminutive stature did not stop him from topping 100 yards receiving and a score, but Big Ten defenses are not kind to undersized receivers. Still, the playmaking ability might be there if Meyer needs to reach into his bag of tricks, but how much Saunders can make an impact when the game is still competitive is up in the air.
That is, if he ever actually plays in those situations.
2 - Michael Hill remains a mystery
He was suppsoed to be one of the team's leading interior defensive lineman, but is instead being kept away by suspension. Michael Hill remains suspended this week for the fifth-straight game, and Meyer would not commit on the time frame of getting him back.
"I've been saying one week at a time," Meyer said. "So, he won't play this week."
Hill's reason for suspension is a violation of team rules, but there has been no further clarification. Tracey Sprinkle and Dre'Mont Jones have been holding down the fort well in the absence of Hill, but an injury to Malik Barrow that will be keeping him out the rest of season might mean Ohio State is itching to get Hill back sooner rather than later.
Still, with no time frame released, Hill might be on the outside looking in for quite some time.
ONE LAST PREDICTION
With offensive weapons like Campbell — who leads the nation in kickoff return average and Dobbins —who is arguably the best freshman running back and even freshman period — Ohio State is primed to enter Big Ten play with a dominating offense to counteract a defense that has been performing under par.
Barrett's time to shine is now, and the Silver Bullets are due for a big time performance. While Rutgers has been surprisingly efficient on defense, the lack of offensive firepower and overall struggles in scoring will lead to a rough day for the Scarlet Knights in Piscataway.
Ohio State might not blow the doors off Rutgers like many expect year in and year out, but this one should be a nice comfortable win to kick off the conference schedule.