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Football: Ohio State running game still strives to find ‘the guy’

Ohio State redshirt junior running back Mike Weber (25) waves to the crowd after scoring a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the game against Michigan State on Nov. 10. Ohio State won 26-6. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

In Saturday’s win against Maryland, sophomore J.K. Dobbins had to be “the guy” again. The same running back that opened the season against Indiana in 2017. The same running back who broke free for 174 yards against Wisconsin in the 2017 Big Ten Championship.

But “the guy” normally does not split time. “The guy” does not usually split offensive series with another back.

With redshirt junior Mike Weber out with a quad bruise, Dobbins said he knew he was going to have to take most of the carries and put the Ohio State running game on his shoulders.

“I had myself mentally prepared for that and I kind of like that,” Dobbins said. “I like getting hit a little bit, you know. I like the roughness. And I just know how to carry a load.”

The sophomore running back carried the ball 37 times, his Ohio State career high, and the most, he said, he has carried in a single game since high school. He ran for 203 yards, scoring a touchdown in the 52-51 overtime victory against the Terrapins.

As a running back that primarily splits series with Weber, Dobbins describes himself as a back who thrives on momentum.

“When you can play more than one drive at a time, you can get in a groove,” Dobbins said. “I’m an energetic guy, so whenever I get in a groove, I get pretty energetic.”  

With Weber back into the game plan for Saturday’s matchup with No. 4 Michigan, a defense that prides itself on stopping momentum for opposing backs, averaging 3.3 yards per carry against the Wolverines, the question remains.

How does one of Ohio State’s 1,000-yard carriers get into a rhythm if they are being subbed out each series?

The answer really has not been found for the Buckeyes this season. It came close in Ohio State’s win against Nebraska on Nov. 3, but one clearly still had the advantage: Dobbins recorded 163 yards on 23 carries with three touchdowns while Weber recorded 91 yards on nine carries.

Other members of the Ohio State offense know one thing is true. No matter which back thrives, whether it’s Dobbins or Weber, the running game is vital for the Buckeyes to succeed against Michigan.

For redshirt senior Parris Campbell, it’s part of a larger offensive system that needs to be clicking on another level against the Wolverines.

“We’re going to have to do everything at a high level, whether it’s running the ball, throwing the ball, blocking up front, blocking on the perimeter,” Campbell said. They’re a huge blitz team. We’ll have to pick those up, but I think the run game will be very important. I think we’ll prepare the right way and come Saturday we’ll be ready.”

Senior right tackle Isaiah Prince said it is very important for Ohio State to establish a run game, giving the offense many different approaches, whether it’s through the play-action pass, the zone read or just airing the ball out through redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins.

But to him, there really has not been any difference knowing that either Dobbins or Weber is in the backfield at a particular time.

“To me there is no difference if they are splitting carries or one of them is getting the majority of the carries,” Prince said. “It still feels the same when we run the ball, I feel like there is no difference.”

Success in the Ohio State running game is dependent on rhythm, the rhythm that Dobbins had against Nebraska and Maryland, that Weber had against Oregon State and Michigan State. It allows Haskins to expand his playbook, utilizing those zone read plays and play-action passes.

But with Weber healthy, head coach Urban Meyer, offensive coordinator Ryan Day and the rest of the Ohio State offense will likely lean on both him and Dobbins equally, getting both going, using the saying of “keeping players fresh” to back up their choice.

To redshirt senior right guard Demetrius Knox, whatever the game plan is for the offense as a whole, he is behind it.

“We trust our coaching staff and whatever their scheme is for this week, as we get into practice and everything for this week, that’s the scheme that’s going to work,” Knox said.

But Dobbins, after his career game against Maryland, had other ideas.

“I wanted them to keep leaning on me as much as they could,” Dobbins said. “Whatever the coaches wanted to do, I’ll be there for them.”

This is the mentality of “the guy,” something that, with the Ohio State game plan this season, neither Weber nor Dobbins have been able to consistently be.

Something that one of them will need to be to beat Michigan on Saturday.  

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