DALLAS — Every team with a stud running back that faced Ohio State’s run defense believed it had the key to breaking through a stingy front that has allowed just 108.8 yards per game, eighth-best in the nation.
But the Buckeyes stuffed nearly every high-level back they played against. Penn State’s Heisman Trophy contender Saquon Barkley managed just 2.1 yards per carry on 21 rushes, while Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor had 15 carries for 41 yards.
Like all other challengers that have come before, USC believes it has a running back — junior Ronald Jones — who can break through.
And while Jones sits in the shadow of potential No. 1 NFL draft pick quarterback Sam Darnold, he might be the key to a USC victory in the Cotton Bowl Friday.
“They’ve done a good job against some really good running backs,” Trojans offensive coordinator Tee Martin said Wednesday. “But Ronald, I think, is different than some guys they’ve seen.”
Jones sits at No. 5 in the record book for most rushing yards in USC history with 3,555 yards.
This season, he has racked up 1,486 yards on 242 carries and became the first player in the program since Lendale White (2004 and 2005) to rush for at least 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons. Through 12 games, he has 18 touchdowns on the ground and has added 14 catches for 187 yards, with a touchdown.
“I don’t know if, number one, I haven’t coached one like him,” Martin said. “I don’t know if in my career I’ll have another one like him.”
The challenge Jones presents to Ohio State in Friday’s Cotton Bowl differs from its prior matchups against top running backs. His combination of speed and acceleration with unexpected power from a 6-foot, 200-pound frame differs from the unexpected speed of Taylor and Barkley, both of whom weigh at least 15 pounds more than Jones.
While Taylor and Barkley look physical and surprise defenses with their speed, Jones’ speed is well documented, where his physicality and power can shock the opposition.
“He kind of takes a, what you call a raised step right before he gets hit and really delivers a blow, as opposed to a guy just continuing to run,” Schiano said. “That is something that I don’t know if it’s coached or not. You don’t see a lot of guys that are able to do that. I think that’s kind of a gift. And if you make a mistake, the one thing, he’s gone.”
Redshirt junior defensive end Sam Hubbard said he believes Barkley and Taylor are “typical Big Ten-great running backs,” but Jones is smaller and much faster than them. Regardless, he said, the defensive gameplan does not change.
“Everything’s the same,” Hubbard said. “You’ve got to be fundamentally sound, stay in your gaps and build a wall.”
That wall has held strong nearly every game, though a few players — such as Iowa’s Akrum Wadley, who rushed for 118 yards on 20 carries — have broken through. Even Barkley managed a 36-yard rush in his 41-yard performance against the Buckeyes.
The Trojans hope Jones can break through that wall, but are prepared to sub in backup running backs. Martin said all four tailbacks — Jones, Stephen Carr, Vavae Malepeai and Aca’Cedric Ware — are healthy for the first time this season.
“We can go big, we can go small,” Martin said. “We can go fast or faster with the four backs that we have.”
But the Buckeyes feel confident that they can counter the Trojans’ stable of running backs with their dominant defensive line rotation.
“If they’re going to keep cycling running backs in and running the ball, their offensive line is going to get worn down,” Hubbard said. “I feel like we have that advantage in at least the rotation if they try and go up-tempo just because we’re so deep at the defensive line.”
Though the Trojans plan to rotate running backs, Jones will be the key to kick-starting a run game that became more important late in the year.
During the final stretch of the season, Jones became USC’s featured offensive weapon. After having more than 20 carries just once through the Trojans’ first nine games of the year, he had 25-plus carries in each of the final four games, tallying at least 122 yards in each contest.
Ohio State quarterbacks coach Ryan Day told the defense Jones would be one of the top-two running backs the Buckeyes face this season, along with Barkley, sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa said. But the ever-confident, second-team All-American is not worried.
“[Jones] was a track guy, so he’s really fast and he’s a pretty big dude,” Bosa said. “So we just have to bottle him up.
“We’ve done pretty well with that this year so it’ll be just like the same.”