Week after week, Ohio State’s run game could not get it going for the offense.
Redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins threw for 400 yards or more in three straight games, while sophomore and redshirt junior running backs J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber, respectively, failed to produce 100 yards in either of the past two contests.
But after a 36-31 victory against Nebraska, the rush offense is starting to turn a corner.
Dobbins and Weber combined for 254 rushing yards on 32 carries, with Dobbins finding his way to the end zone three times in a game that was much closer than expected.
Nebraska’s rush defense was ranked No. 79 in the country, and the Buckeyes exploited it. Now, Ohio State takes that much-needed momentum on the ground to East Lansing, Michigan, to take on Michigan State.
The Spartans allow 71.7 rushing yards per game, the fewest in the NCAA. Their 2.53 yards per rush allowed is No. 3 in the country, and the seven rushing touchdowns allowed is tied for No. 8.
Head coach Urban Meyer is well aware of the difficult matchup his run game is about to face, saying it “has to be” sustainable moving forward.
“That’s what we’re working on right now. Obviously you’re facing the No. 1 rush defense in the country coming up this next week,” Meyer said. “A lot of what you see schematically will change because [it’s] a completely different defense … But the mentality has to be the same.”
This season, Ohio State ranks No. 55 with 178.1 rushing yards per game on 4.52 yards per carry.
That improved on Saturday, with Dobbins and Weber running for more than seven yards per carry, including Weber going for 10.1 yards per rush on nine carries against the Cornhuskers.
Even with Weber’s high totals, it was Dobbins who earned the majority of the carries — 23 for 163 yards — including on the final drives to seal the victory for Ohio State.
Meyer said after the game it had to do with Dobbins’ ball security, with Weber fumbling twice against Nebraska.
On Monday, Meyer said he does not expect to make changes on the rotation of the two backs, allowing his coordinators to make that adjustment if it is needed.
“I’ve been OK with it. I don’t micromanage that too much, but if I have to, I’ll get involved in that,” Meyer said. “I think a fresh back that goes a good series and then the next guy gets the next series. And obviously near the end J.K. got a couple of extra series just [because] he was so tight with the football, we have to make sure Mike takes care of the ball.”
After Ohio State failed to come out after a loss like it did last season — demolishing then-No. 12 Michigan State 48-3 following the 55-24 loss to Iowa — the Buckeyes are still searching for a statement victory to prove their worth as a College Football Playoff contender.
The improvement in the run game is a start, and if Dobbins and Weber can put up similar numbers against Michigan State, it could lead to a big victory for Ohio State in East Lansing.
Last season, Weber and Dobbins stepped up against the Spartans rush defense, recording 286 yards on 27 carries, with Weber scoring twice.
Meyer said he expects a similar defense to the one his team beat by 45 last year, but that success will come not just from his running backs, but from the guys blocking for them come Saturday.
“Their defense hasn’t changed that much. They’re doing a little bit different things this year. Well-coached defense, tough guys, defensive front is outstanding and their backers are outstanding,” Meyer said. “Our offensive line played very well and our backs, that was their best pad-level game as far as dropping their pads and getting through those holes.”
The week earlier, against Purdue, it looked like Ohio State’s bottom-half rush offense would be at a major disadvantage against the Spartans, giving Michigan State a big opportunity to find leverage in a pivotal matchup for the Buckeyes’ playoff hopes.
Now, with the first week of success on the ground in a month, Ohio State may have figured out a way to get the offense working through Dobbins and Weber, and not a week too soon.