Football: Conference play returns as No. 11 Buckeyes ride to Rutgers

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Ohio State freshman running back TreVeyon Henderson (32) and redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud (7) celebrate during the Ohio State-Tulsa game Sept. 18. Ohio State won 41-20. Credit: Mackenzie Shanklin | Photo Editor

Following three-straight nonconference home games where Ohio State played up and down but showed signs of promise, Big Ten competition will restart this weekend in Piscataway, New Jersey, against Rutgers.

The Buckeyes (3-1, 1-0 Big Ten) slipped out of the AP Top 10 for the first time in the Ryan Day era, dropping just one spot to No. 11, despite a convincing 59-7 win over Akron as freshman quarterback Kyle McCord earned the start and redshirt freshman Jack Miller III took over in the third quarter.

Day said he noticed halfway through Tuesday’s practice that redshirt freshman quarterback C.J. Stroud looked like he’s ready to return after taking off last week’s game against Akron.

“I thought C.J.’s had a good week of work, so looking forward to getting him back on the field this week,” Day said. “I think stepping away has been good, too. I think it allowed him an opportunity to heal up and rest up his shoulder, but also a little bit of a different perspective. I’m hoping that pays off.”

Stroud’s return will come against the Scarlet Knights (3-1, 0-1 Big Ten) during what may arguably be the best version of their team the Buckeyes have seen. Nonetheless, Ohio State owns a perfect 7-0 record, with three of those victories coming in SHI Stadium.

Rutgers holds opponents to 262.8 yards per game, a figure that ranks 11th-best in all of the NCAA. The Buckeyes average 559.2 total yards of offense, second-most in the country, so a clash between dominant forces on both sides of the ball is in store.

The Scarlet Knights also rank fourth nationally in turnover margin, with seven more takeaways than they’ve allowed. Freshman defensive back Max Melton leads the team with two interceptions and four pass breakups, while five different players have forced fumbles.

Rutgers’ offense has lagged behind its conference counterparts, ranking ninth in passing and 10th in rushing, respectively. Senior quarterback Noah Vedral, who Day described as “gutsy,” averages 188.8 passing yards per game, while senior wide receiver Bo Melton puts up 63 receiving yards per game.

“I think this week, we just got to focus on us,” sophomore safety Ronnie Hickman said. “They’re definitely going to throw some different stuff at you. With us being young and maybe not having the experience, at the end of the day, we’ve been taught rules and if we follow those rules, we’ll be good.”

Hickman leads a Buckeyes defense that clamped down Akron’s offense one week ago, including having snagged his team-leading second interception that he ran back for a touchdown.

Ohio State recorded nine sacks against the Zips to vault up to third among Big Ten teams despite having only four through three games. Graduate defensive tackle Haskell Garrett made three sacks alone, but freshman defensive tackle Tyleik Williams forced a pair to tie the former for the team lead.

“I feel that nobody really understands how young this team is,” Garrett said. “Teams before have been experienced and played. This is a really developing team. We’re turning into that great team.”

It took the first series for Ohio State’s offense to click, but when it did, the Buckeyes’ roll couldn’t be slowed. They scored touchdowns on four-straight drives and recorded at least 201 yards through the air and on the ground for the second time all season.

The Buckeyes scored five rushing touchdowns against Akron to set a new season-high after punching in the rock three times versus Tulsa the week prior. Four different running backs earned carries and pushed forward at least 35 yards apiece, led by freshman TreVeyon Henderson with two scores and graduate Master Teague III with as many.

“One thing about our room is none of the running backs hate on another running back,” Henderson said. “We all just work. We’re all proud of each other. We’re always supporting each other and picking each other up.”

Last season, the Scarlet Knights caught Ohio State off guard at points with a gamut of trick plays and creative schemes. Whether it’s a baiting special teams setup or a series of handoffs, Rutgers head coach  — and former Buckeyes defensive coordinator — Greg Schiano is expected to pull from all directions yet again after a close 20-13 loss at Michigan in Week 4.

The Scarlet Knights outscored Ohio State 24-14 in the second half during their matchup last season. They’ve scored at least 45 points in two of their wins and allowed just 54 points all season — third-fewest in the Big Ten.

“This isn’t the Rutgers that it used to be,” Garrett said. “This is a great Rutgers football team. We have a challenge ahead of us.”

The Buckeyes and Scarlet Knights will kick off at 3:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network.

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