COLUMBUS — Following a turbulent non-conference schedule that included a loss to Oregon, No. 11 Ohio State is set to return to conference play on Saturday when they travel to take on Rutgers. On Tuesday, head coach Ryan Day held his weekly press conference to wrap up last week’s blowout of Akron while previewing the challenge ahead.
No question looms larger for Day and the Buckeyes this week than who will start at quarterback. With C.J. Stroud sitting out last week to rest his injured right shoulder, true freshman Kyle McCord made his first career start against Akron and threw for 319 yards and two touchdowns.
Day expressed confidence last week that a full week of rest would go a long way in getting Stroud’s shoulder healthy, and he said on Tuesday that Stroud is progressing well. However, Day was not ready to commit to a starting quarterback just yet, suggesting there is still some progress to be made.
“We’ll see how today goes. I thought the week (of rest) helped him, and it sounds like it’s going in the right direction. So, we’re hoping for a great day of practice today,” Day said of Stroud.
As for the degree of confidence he has in Stroud’s ability to play this week, Day said, ”I’m optimistic that coming off of Sunday’s practice, and the feedback I’ve gotten from our trainers, medical staff, and C.J., that we’ll be ready to move forward this week.”
While Stroud’s health still needs to be demonstrated during practice this week, Day was adamant about one aspect of the quarterback situation. Despite McCord’s relatively encouraging performance on Saturday, Day was clear that Stroud is still the guy to lead to Ohio State so long as he is physically capable of doing so. Asked if Stroud would be his starting quarterback on Saturday if healthy, Day said without hesitation, “Yes.”
Day said after the game on Saturday that he would need to dive into the film to see where McCord and Jack Miller’s eyes were during plays to truly evaluate their play. After having the opportunity to do so, he said McCord’s evening was a mixture of good and areas that need to improve.
“He was inconsistent with some of his reads,” Day said. “I thought that early on, he was a little nervous. He did make some nice throws when he saw it, and I thought there were some really good plays in there. But there were also some plays that he kind of got away with. We just have to do a great job of recognizing what the pre-snap movement keys are, the post-snap movement keys, and just trust our eyes. But when you’re starting for the first time, there’s a lot going on, and I think the next time he’s in that moment, he’ll be a little more settled.”
No performance against Akron was more uplifting than that of the defense, which had taken its lumps through the first three weeks. Ohio State held the Zips to just 229 total yards and recorded nine sacks after totaling just four sacks in the previous three games combined. Of course, the quality of the opponent likely had a significant role in the defense’s collective uprising, and Day said on Tuesday the true tests are directly in front of them.
“I think we’ve made some strides, and I think this week will be another big test for us,” Day said. “I think, overall, you just see us changing some things up, playing with great aggression. But again, we’ll know more here in a couple of weeks and will figure out where we’re at … I don’t think the answer is here yet.”
Specifically, Day singled out the secondary as one of the groups he’s seen the most improvement from throughout the last month. Asked if he’s happy with what he’s seeing from the group, which has experienced a youth movement of sorts with several first-time producers beginning to make an impact, Day said there are encouraging signs but also bigger tests ahead for them.
“We’ll see. We have a bigger challenge this week but I think you’re starting to see guys make plays,” Day said. “I think you’re seeing Denzel (Burke) kind of settle into a role here. You’re seeing Ronnie Hickman settle into a role. We have moved Lathan (Ransom) around a little bit, so he’s working through that. Cam (Martinez) has made some plays. We’re kind of looking to really solidify those roles but it is good to still have some depth there and roll some guys. You can see there’s certainly not as much rolling as there was the first couple of weeks.”
That Rutgers is even being considered as a challenge worthy of being used as a measuring stick is already an upset in its own right. The Buckeyes opened this week as a 15.5-point favorite, the smallest spread in the matchup since Rutgers joined the conference in 2014, and the Scarlet Knights’ narrow loss in Ann Arbor last week has only served to louden the potential upset alerts. Much of the respect Rutgers is receiving is out of respect for their head coach, Greg Schiano, who returned to Rutgers prior to last year after serving as an assistant on Urban Meyer’s staff in Columbus.
Day said of Schiano, “I think he’s done a very, very good job these past two years of getting his team ready. He does a good job of coaching in all three phases. It is a challenge going on the road. I think you see what he did last year, certainly playing some really good football, and then last week took ‘up north’ all the way to the fourth quarter … He has the guys believing and playing hard. It’s going to be a Big Ten conference road game that we have to do a really good job, get on the road, and handle the environment. It will be a really good environment there; they’ll have them rocking.”