The Monday after No. 6 Ohio State’s 39-38 comeback win against Penn State in which freshman running back J.K. Dobbins took 13 carries for 88 yards, head coach Urban Meyer was adamant he would not “micromanage” which backs deserved carries.
Two days following the victory, Meyer said he deferred to running backs coach Tony Alford and co-offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson when determining who carries the ball. Two days after that, Wilson said Alford controlled carry counts and had no idea the total number of carries Dobbins had until he was told because he is a “big-picture guy” and was focused on “getting the offense going.”
Dobbins, who leads the team with 119 carries for 914 yards (7.7 yards per carry), carried the ball four times for 50 yards in the first quarter against the Nittany Lions, then did not touch the ball again until the third quarter.
In the Buckeyes’ 55-24 loss to Iowa, the issue resurfaced after Dobbins had four carries for 45 yards in the first quarter, but finished the game with just six carries for 51 yards. On Monday, Meyer said the coaches discuss running back carry counts and added he believes the star freshman deserves more touches.
“We have conversation about it,” Meyer said. “If there’s a huge disparity between — I think, [redshirt sophomore Mike Weber is] playing hard. I think J.K. is our starter, had a couple of nice runs. Those are things we talk about. But once again I think coach Alford does a nice job. He should have more than six carries, but we got behind and started throwing it a lot.”
Dobbins’ usage against Iowa and inconsistent playing time against Penn State come in stark contrast to his high carry counts at the beginning of the year. Starting in his first-ever collegiate game due to Weber’s injury, the freshman totalled 29 carries for 181 yards, more carries and yards than both Weber or former Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott had in their debuts.
In six of the next seven games, Dobbins received between 12 and 14 carries. He has not rushed for less than 5.5 yards per carry in a single game.
“I want to wear him out,” Meyer said on Oct. 11 following Dobbins’ 13-rush, 96-yard performance against Maryland. “Seriously, I want to wear him out.”
That has not happened. In contrast, Ohio State fans have worn themselves out yelling for Dobbins to get more carries.
This is not the first time Ohio State’s star skill position player has not consistently received touches. On nearly every occasion, quarterback J.T. Barrett has tallied more carries than the running back or H-back. While Dobbins had just six carries against Iowa, Barrett rushed the ball 14 times for 72 yards, averaging four yards less per carry than the freshman.
In Ohio State’s loss to Oklahoma earlier this season, Barrett had 18 carries for 66 yards while Dobbins took 13 carries 72 yards. In the loss to Penn State last year, Barrett had 17 carries for 26 yards while former H-back Curtis Samuel had two rushes for 71 yards and caught six passes for 68 yards. In a 2015 loss to Michigan State, Barrett rushed 15 times for 44 yards while Elliott had 12 carries for 33 yards.
Like many other teams during Barrett’s tenure as Ohio State’s quarterback, Iowa focused on keeping the ball out of the running back’s hand and forcing the dual-threat to beat them on the ground. Meyer said he and the offensive coaching staff must figure out how to improve the game plan to get more handoffs to the running backs.
“A lot of times when you’re struggling, [Barrett running is] your kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” Meyer said.
But Barrett’s increased runs have not got the Buckeyes out of jail. Instead, they take the ball out of the more dynamic playmaker and give it to Barrett who, despite being a dual-threat quarterback, averages 2.6 less yards per carry than Dobbins.
Meyer said he prefers his quarterbacks to run between eight and 12 times per game, and noted he does not want Barrett to run as much. However, he also said he and the assistant coaches have talked about whether Ohio State has passed the ball too much in favor of trying to focus on improving the aerial attack, which struggled early in the season.
“We discussed that as well,” Meyer said. “Really through about a six-game run there, we were a nice balance as far as run-pass ratio, throwing for a little bit more than we have. But, yeah, that’s much different makeup right now than when we were a heavy, heavy — used to be about a 70 percent run. It’s about 65 [percent run], about 55/45 now.”
Ohio State has rushed the ball on just 52.2 percent of its plays this season. Last season, the Buckeyes rushed the ball on 58.8 percent of offensive plays. In Meyer’s four prior seasons, his teams did not run the ball on less than 62.8 percent of its plays.
Since Meyer wants less quarterback runs and has considered whether Ohio State has become too pass-happy, only one antidote exists: increased running back carries.
It should be an easy change. All Ohio State must do is hand the ball to one of its most explosive skill position players. Yet Meyer has dealt with this issue in years prior and it continues to surface.
The time to “micromanage” Dobbins’ carries is not now. It was before Iowa embarrassed Ohio State and eliminated it from playoff contention.