INDIANAPOLIS — J.K. Dobbins was not supposed to be on the podium accepting the Big Ten championship game’s most valuable player trophy. He wasn’t even supposed to be Ohio State’s starting running back this season.
Entering the season, redshirt sophomore Mike Weber was locked into the starting running back position. Coming off a year in which he rushed for 1,096 yards and became just the third freshman in program history to rush for more than 1,000 yards, there was no debate. It was Weber’s job.
But when he partially tore his hamstring, a hole for Dobbins opened up. And just as he has done on the field this season, he ran through it and made the most of it. In the season opener against Indiana, Dobbins took 29 carries for 189 yards. On the season, he has 164 rushes for 1,190 yards.
In Saturday night’s 27-21 Big Ten championship game win against Wisconsin, he did it again. Dobbins had 17 carries for 174 yards and averaged 10.2 yards per carry, the second-most of his season.
“It’s surreal, I can’t explain it,” he said after the win. “I can’t really talk about it right now.”
There really is no explanation for Dobbins’ success. It is unprecedented in the history of Ohio State. On his first 50-plus rush of the game, he passed running back Maurice Clarett — a player the freshman was not old enough to remember seeing play live — for the most rushing yards as a freshman in program history.
Not only did he break the record in a championship game, but he performed against a Badger defense that entered the contest allowing just 80.5 rush yards per game, the fewest in the nation. But the Buckeyes’ success against the top rush defense did not surprise the freshman.
“If you looked at our offensive line and how they block, it was destined to happen,” Dobbins said.
With quarterback J.T. Barrett just six days removed from a knee surgery, Dobbins said he expected he and Weber would be called upon for a larger role than usual. But with 5:03 remaining in the second quarter, Wisconsin linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel stripped the ball out of Weber’s hands and recovered the ball at Ohio State’s 11-yard line. Weber had just one more carry in the game.
The increased usage did not phase Dobbins. He had already had a 77-yard rush in which he showed his patience, but got caught from behind by cornerback Nick Nelson, who forced him out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Then on his team’s second drive of the third quarter, Dobbins raced for 53 yards and kicker Sean Nuernberger kicked a 27-yard field goal four plays later.
“I saw both of the guys,” Dobbins said. “On the second one, I knew the guy was going to be there. I ran past him, but I knew he was going to dive and catch me. And then on that other one, I just got tired.”
Dobbins said he got tired because this has been a long season for the freshman who did not play his senior year of high school due to an injury. Luckily for Dobbins, the Buckeyes will have a long wait until they play next.
If his wishes are granted, he would get a shot in the College Football Playoff. Dobbins said he believes his team should be in because it beat Wisconsin, a top-four team, and then-No. 2 Penn State.
“We just go out and play our game, we don’t worry about that,” he said. “We play our game and the pieces will fall in.”
That has already worked for him this season. He played his game and it allowed the Buckeyes beat Penn State, Michigan State, Michigan and, now, to win a Big Ten championship.
Minutes after the final seconds ticked off the clock, Dobbins ended up on a podium containing head coach Urban Meyer, Barrett and the dozens of other Ohio State players and coaches.
With a scarlet Big Ten championship-winning T-shirt draped over his shoulder pads, gloves and elbow pads still on, an elated Dobbins covered his mouth in disbelief as he stared at his MVP trophy. He couldn’t even take credit for the award.
“This trophy doesn’t belong to me, it’s belongs to my offensive linemen,” he said to the cheers of Ohio State fans.
Dobbins might not feel like the trophy is his, but it is. He earned it with a 77-yard run and a 53-yard carry, both of which put Ohio State in scoring position. He earned it with 174 rushing yards to help carry the load of a team hindered by an injured quarterback.
Dobbins might not have been expected to stand on that podium, hoisting his MVP trophy. But he was. And he’s only a freshman. Dobbins is just getting started.