Ohio State Buckeyes looking more like a team that can live up to expectations

Was this the real Ohio State football team?

A better opponent (or opponents) will be necessary to find out for sure, but the coach of the Buckeyes saw his team take a big step in that direction Saturday in New Jersey.

ExploreGame recap

“Overall I thought our team played more toughness than it did in the past,” Ryan Day said after Ohio State thrashed Rutgers 52-13. “This was an important game for us because I felt like Sept. 2 — a month ago when we played Minnesota — we were a much different team.

“I felt like that going into this week, but we hadn’t shown it yet. I felt like we saw some glimpse of that tonight.”

The Buckeyes started the season with an up-and-down 45-31 win over the Golden Gophers on a Thursday night. Ten days later, they suffered a 35-28 loss to Oregon that set off alarm bells because it featured many of the same chronic defensive breakdowns that were present last season.

The setback prompted changes to the structure of the defensive coaching staff and the defense itself that were first partially unveiled in another uneven win (41-20 over Tulsa).

ExploreHow the Ohio State defense has changed over the past three weeks

That game also seemed to be a step back for C.J. Stroud, the redshirt freshman quarterback who was 15-for-25 passing for 185 yards and two touchdowns with an interception against the Golden Hurricane after throwing for nearly 500 yards against Oregon.

His play against Rutgers was perhaps the No. 1 indicator the Buckeyes are back on track.

After sitting out a win over Akron to rest a sore shoulder, Stroud completed 17 of 23 passes for 330 yards and five touchdowns.

He looked more comfortable in the pocket, had a smoother delivery and appeared generally to be more in command than the last time he was leading the offense.

“This is what he’s capable of,” Day said. “Now he’s got to bring it. He’s got to be consistent. There’s still a lot of things we’ll watch on film tomorrow and get corrected and get fixed. Now there’s a body of work on film. Now guys are going to look at him and try to attack him different ways. He’s going to have to have answers, and that’s playing in the Big Ten, but you can see what he’s capable of.”

The Ohio State defense also took another step forward against a Rutgers team featuring a heady quarterback and game-breakers at running back and receiver.

That receiver — Aron Cruickshank — showed what he can do with a 75-yard catch-and-run through the Buckeye secondary, but the Scarlet Knights could not get much else going when the starters were in the game.

First-year starters Ronnie Hickman, Cam Martinez, Denzel Burke and Cody Simon continued to lead the way for the defense.

Hickman had a team-high 11 tackles while Martinez had seven stops and Simon was credited with five.

Burke, a true freshman who has been one of the bring spots since the Minnesota game, notched his first career interception return for a touchdown to stagger the Scarlet Knights early.

That set the tone for a blowout of a team that took Michigan to the end a week earlier and won its first three games.

“These were all guys who had zero starts in their career,” Day said. “They have games under their belts so know we know what to expect.

“We also know what guys can give us meaningful minutes behind them and who needs to continue to work hard to get where they need to be to become a contributor and create a role for themselves. We just didn’t have that last year. A game like this allows a bunch of different guys to get on the field and all meaningful stuff.”

Explore5 things to know about the win over Rutgers

After outscoring Akron and Rutgers by a combined 111-20, Ohio State appears positioned to take off, but there is still work to do — and more challenges ahead.

The Buckeyes return home Saturday to face a Maryland team that got off to a promising start to the season but was dismantled by Iowa 51-14 on Friday night.

After a week off, Ohio State will play at disappointing-but-dangerous Indiana before a visit from Penn State that figures to be a top-10 showdown at Ohio Stadium.

“If we get better week in and week out and continue to get these guys reps, keep coaching better, giving them a better opportunity to be successful,” Day said, “then hopefully we’ll pick up our head in about a month we’ll be where we need to be in November.”

SATURDAY’S GAME

Maryland at Ohio State, Noon, Fox, 1410

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