Ohio State Football’s C.J. Stroud Emerged Healthier, Sharper And Smarter In 52 13 Rout Of Rutgers

PISCATAWAY, N.J. — We had seen this version of C.J. Stroud before, the one where Ohio State football’s precocious quarterback fixated on his first read and forced a dangerous pass rather than find his next progression.

We had not, however, previously observed what came next. It was one of the least consequential factors in Saturday’s outcome, coming well after the No. 11 Buckeyes had entered the blowout zone of an eventual 52-13 victory at SHI Stadium.

Stroud’s 44-yard scoring hookup with Chris Olave, though, showed his health may not be all that has improved over the past two weeks.

First, the brief glimpse of bad. Even during back-to-back Big Ten Freshman of the Week performances to open the season, Stroud still showed his inexperience. How quickly he seemed to forget about Jaxon Smith-Njigba. How uncomfortable he seemed to be throwing on the run.

On Saturday’s incompletion in question, he could have hit tight end Jeremy Ruckert bending in on his route uncovered. I’m not certain Stroud ever saw him, though. He had tractor beams on Olave, and multiple Rutgers defensive backs took notice. Stroud was fortunate to escape with merely an incompletion.

On the next snap, Stroud felt the breath of the pass rush on the back of his neck just in time. Two weeks ago he might have rushed that pass into coverage, too. Instead, he kept his wits and hit Olave on his crossing route in the middle of the field.

Olave went for 56 yards and a touchdown to push the lead to push Ohio State’s lead to 45-6 with under four minutes to play in the first half. With 330 yards and five touchdowns, Stroud probably locked up a third conference freshman award in four starts. The real jump came in his efficiency, though, where he completed 17 of 23 passes and avoided an interception for the first time.

Stroud seemed healthier, and that trend began before warm-ups. Unlike the last time we saw him prior to a game, Sept. 18 against Tulsa, he did not windmill that right arm around to loosen it or grab at while wincing.

Perhaps improved health directly contributed to improved precision. Despite that 39-point halftime lead, Stroud went back out for the first drive of the second half. While leading another touchdown drive, he dropped a pass to Smith-Njigba in stride down the sideline that resembled a handful of silk flowers dropping onto two pillows.

Stroud could have another week of rest coming up, with Ohio State idle after playing Maryland next week. The Buckeyes don’t need him to simply keep healing. They need him to be a better quarterback.

Saturday’s victory was a step back onto that path.

Shutting them down

A year ago, Ohio State desperately needed playmakers to show up consistently on defense. Its current crop of young defenders are finally answering that call.

True freshman Denzel Burke’s 23-yard interception return gave Ohio State a 14-0 lead. It was the third consecutive game with a pick six for a defense that intercepted Noah Verdal four times Saturday.

Rutgers receiver Aron Cruikshank did get loose for a 75-yard touchdown reception. The team’s other 30 first-half plays netted 67 yards (2.23 per play).

Ohio State registered only one late sack — by breakout freshman defensive tackle Tyleik Williams — after recording nine a week earlier against Akron. It did affect multiple plays with pressure, including on at least two of Vedral’s interceptions.

The signs of true progress will come when Ohio State again thwarts a more dynamic opponent. The absence of such a test is out of its control, for now.

Banged up

TreVeyon Henderson was off to a big day, including a 44-yard touchdown run on his first touch. However, he left the game at the end of the first quarter and did not return. He went to the medical tent and emerged without his helmet, though he did remain on the sidelines for the rest of the game.

Day indicated to the Big Ten Network broadcast that the injury was not believed to be serious.

Starting linebacker Cody Simon left the game in the second half, also with an apparent injury.

The Buckeyes used Matt Jones at both right and left guard and moved their offensive linemen around. It was not clear whether an injury concerns contributed.

What it means

Ohio State needed an emphatic victory in a matchup like this after failing to secure them against Minnesota and Tulsa. Blowouts allow the coaching staff to expose banged-up players to fewer snaps and continue to build depth at thin spots.

Half of OSU’s final six games are against teams currently ranked in the top 20. Momentum is building, however, on both sides of the ball.

What’s next

Maryland comes to Ohio Stadium on Saturday. The Terrapins and quarterback Taulia Tagovailoa were once thought to be a solid challenge for Ohio State’s defense heading into a midseason off week. Then he threw five interceptions in a 51-14 loss to Iowa on Friday night.

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