It would be hard for the Ohio State football team to script a better way to begin its lone bye week of the 2015 season.
Its first eight weeks of the season had been littered with lackluster outings, despite emerging victorious in every outing.
But now, a nearly unblemished performance against Rutgers on Saturday in Piscataway, New Jersey, presides as the backdrop for the Buckeyes as their Week 9 rest gets underway.
“It’s definitely what we’ve been waiting for,” junior running back Ezekiel Elliott said following the win. “Coach (Urban) Meyer has been talking about cracking the rock, kind of playing at the potential that we should be playing at.”
The Buckeyes, who maintained their No. 1 ranking in the AP Poll and picked up 11 new first-place votes, did not just crack the rock: They broke it to bits.
OSU controlled the game from the opening whistle until the clock showed 00:00, blasting the Scarlet Knights 49-7 behind the arm and legs of newly minted starting quarterback J.T. Barrett. The redshirt sophomore threw for 223 yards and three scores while tacking on two more touchdowns and 101 yards on the ground.
Elliott added 142 rushing yards and two scores to go along with redshirt junior wide receiver Michael Thomas, who hauled in five passes for 103 yards and a dazzling 55-yard touchdown catch-and-run.
The defense dominated, holding Rutgers to just 293 yards, its fewest number of yards gained all season long. The “Silver Bullets” nearly tossed a shutout had it not been for a 10-play, 90-yard touchdown drive with all second-string players on the turf. Even with the garbage time score, the defense looked like the stifling unit it was against Hawaii and Western Michigan.
“I think this performance tonight showed not only what our offense is supposed to do but what our whole team is supposed to do,” senior left tackle and captain Taylor Decker said after Saturday’s win. “(I) felt like it was a really complete game.”
Stringing together a complete game had eluded OSU up to Saturday’s kickoff. Whether it be the quarterback carousel and a soft run defense or the bevy of turnovers and penalties, something was always missing for the Scarlet and Gray. That trend, however, appears to have been reversed against the Scarlet Knights.
The Buckeyes found their guy behind center in Barrett, whose performance led to him being named co-offensive player of the week in the Big Ten, and limited Rutgers to just 104 yards on the ground. The turnovers and penalty woes went by the wayside, too.
OSU had just one turnover — an opening-drive fumble from Barrett after he accidentally collided with Thomas as the Buckeyes were nearing the red zone. But “the most impressive thing,” Meyer said, was that OSU was not penalized once during the 60 minutes of action.
“That’s definitely a big step for us because if you look at all the games up to here, we had a lot of penalties, a lot of false starts … all that,” Elliott said. “Playing a clean game is great. Those penalties and turnovers kind of hurt our momentum, so when we are able to have our momentum and a roll, it’s a freight train.”
Now, the freight train that is the Buckeyes is heading smoothly down the tracks, full of momentum, looking like the team that steamrolled everything in its way during the final games of 2014.
“It’s that time of the year where teams either go up or they go down, and we needed to start going up,” redshirt freshman defensive end Sam Hubbard said. “It gives us a great feeling to get our bodies and minds right going into the bye weekend.”
With no game on the docket, OSU will take advantage of a light practice schedule to get players back to full strength, as games against Big Ten heavyweights Minnesota, Michigan State and Michigan loom on the horizon.
Last season, OSU had two open weeks — the first was on Sept. 20, just three games into the year, while the second was on Oct. 11. But in 2015, the Buckeyes have played in eight straight weeks, which begins to take a toll.
“It’s huge,” Decker said of the bye week, noting that starters have played a majority of the reps in most games. “There are some guys dinged up, just some little things here and there. Those just start to add up on you, a bunch of little things.”
When the Buckeyes return, closer to full strength, they know the meat of the schedule awaits. But before the more competitive conference clashes begin, OSU will just savor its time off, especially knowing the team turned in its most complete performance of the season.
“It will be nice just to get a little rest, get a little time away, just to kind of take a deep breath and then come back locked and loaded ready to go,” Decker said.
OSU is scheduled to resume action on Nov. 7 at Ohio Stadium against the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Kickoff is set for 8 p.m.