When I sauntered into SHI Stadium to watch Ohio State, the No. 2 team in the nation, battle a 2-7 Rutgers team missing its presumptive starting QB and without a permanent head coach, I had my doubts this would be a competitive football game. Call it a hunch. Had to go with my gut.
So we devised a little trick to make the experience a bit more edge-of-your-seat thrilling. RU, a struggling team also somehow home to 75 future New England Patriots, was named a 52-point underdog, a mark the likes of which we haven't seen since Oklahoma and Kansas State battled in 1989 (a memorable 57-pointer). Even without defensive monster Chase Young, Rutgers doesn't have the talent advantage in the matchup (per sources). So, spotted a requisite 52-0 advantage at the opening kick, could they defeat the Bucks in that all-important metric?
It didn't start well. OSU won the toss and deferred, and pass No. 2 of the game was a hearty turnover.
Within four minutes, the "lead" had been cut to 38.
Suddenly, though, the tide began to turn. After turnovers felled their first two drives, Rutgers played one sequences as the football gods intended (a fourth down was reached), and punted to Garrett Wilson, who muffed it, giving the Scarlet Knights the ball at the opponent's 34. They. Cashed. In.
Which NO ONE had done against the Buckeyes before the second quarter's horn ALL YEAR LONG. By the end of the first, history had already been made.
No, they couldn't get through the celebration without incident. No, it didn't matter.
Unfortunately, that's where the momentum stalled. The second quarter droned on until Ohio State completed a blink-and-you-missed-it drive at the whistle to make it 59-35, significantly hindering all hope of a facsimile miracle.
Coach Schiano did not make his presence known. We continued with football as usual. But facing the same score (35-7 in human parlance, 59-35 in our world) that Nick Saban and Tua Tagovailoa were up against when the valiant QB argued for one more tragic drive, Ryan Day made the same decision: keep pounding with Justin Fields and the starters.
It paid off. With 13:39 left in the third quarter, the deficit moved past "manageable" into "OMG they're doing this by the fourth" territory.
Perhaps more importantly, Chris Olave got NFC Championship Game-style mugged and still did this.
Things were getting chilling and dark for a team that once led 52-0. Somehow, that score was beginning to feel...inauthentic.
At this point, OSU brought backup QB Chris Chugunov, a New Jersey native, in for a homecoming. What if we...I don't know, what if we gave Ohio State five points and Rutgers two for every Jersey-led TD drive? Maybe that would help? No. No modifications. The experiment must continue as orchestrated. Cover at all costs.
Rutgers called a timeout so they could perfectly hit an Ohio State linebacker in stride. Chugunov completed the drive minutes later. 59-49 with 8:33 left in the third. It wasn't over until the fat lady sang, but she was warming up her pipes and lubricating her throat with a Fat Sandwich from a grease truck at this juncture.
But suddenly...I don't know how to tell you this...Rutgers. Defended. Their. Turf.
45-yard third down TD to Bo Melton. The lead swelled once more.
As the fourth quarter reared its misshapen head, the entire Big Ten universe was rapt. Ohio State faced a third-and-seven. There was reputation left to save.
As the clock ticked down, the whole faux-world was faux-invested here. It all mattered more. I wondered to myself how the canned voice yelling, "It's thiiiiiiirrrrrrrd down!" would feel if it knew it was being used at this charade and not a more meaningful occasion. The cannons blared. Some fans existed.
Bottom line? We spent the whole week laughing. We spent the whole first quarter cackling. And Rutgers came out, played the football game like they oughtta, and grabbed that damned cover by the nape of its neck. Ohio State got the Playoff tuneup they desired, but the stripped-for-parts Scarlet Knights and about 1,000 of the most devoted fans you'll ever see witnessed history being fended off in full force.
Bettor luck next time.