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Football: Ohio State tries to break trend of Michigan State’s rush defense

The Buckeyes celebrate after sophomore running back J.K. Dobbins (2) scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter of the game against Nebraska on Nov 3. Ohio State won 36-31. Credit: Casey Cascaldo | Photo Editor

Tony Alford could go into specifics regarding the running game.

The Ohio State running backs coach could go in depth about what redshirt junior Mike Weber and sophomore J.K. Dobbins did correctly utilizing the new scheme developed by the coaching staff in the two weeks after the team’s loss to Purdue. He could explain the two backs’ footwork, hand placement, everything they did correctly against Nebraska.

But Alford does not want to.

For him, it’s more about the physicality of the backs, finishing downhill runs, beating defensive linemen one-on-one.

After Weber and Dobbins combined for 254 rushing yards, with the sophomore scoring three touchdowns, a career high, Alford wants to focus on consistency moving forward, especially when the Buckeyes face the No. 1 pass defense in the country in Michigan State.

“It’s about being consistent and looking into what got you to this point and how do we improve on it and enhance it,” Alford said. “We continue to work towards that and seeing the fruits of your labor come to fruition and continue to work towards it.”

The Michigan State rush defense has the numbers to potentially stifle that production.

With opposing backs averaging 2.53 yards per carry, the Spartans have allowed only 71.7 yards per game, giving up only seven rushing touchdowns in nine games.

But last season, with Michigan State in a similar spot in terms of defensive production, Dobbins and Weber took advantage of the Spartan rush defense in a big way. In Ohio State’s 48-3 win over the Spartans last season, the two backs combined for 286 yards.

No matter the opponent, whether it’s the best rush defense in the country or the worst, Alford coaches the same mentality: to break an opposing defense’s will by pounding the running game to its maximum capability.

“Ohio State is known for being a physical program,” Alford said. “And not from one year to the next, but through the course of time. We are just now getting back to that.”  

This brings a variety of offensive approaches for redshirt sophomore quarterback Dwayne Haskins to run when facing the Spartans on Saturday. He said the priority in the Nebraska game was on the running game, the kind of offense that will help Ohio State succeed in November.

However, he wants the pass offense to get back to the level it was at in the past three weeks, using the running game to set up the deep ball Haskins likes to throw, bringing a balance Ohio State has yet to truly see this season.

“Now that we are able to establish the run, I feel like it will help on third down situations, help in situations where it can be thrown or handed off,” Haskins said. “Having that running game going just means a lot of the play calling because you don’t have to worry about running the ball and not getting any yards, calling it and getting 2nd-and-long, 3rd-and-long situations.”

Alford said he can help with that in a variety of ways, using multiple packages with two options behind Haskins.

The running backs coach said head coach Urban Meyer has not micromanaged his deciding which back, either Dobbins or Weber, is in the game at a certain point, saying the objective is to make both of them complete players that can be used whenever.

The Ohio State offense has shown a variety of packages, especially in the red zone, using two tight ends and an extra offensive lineman, redshirt freshman Wyatt Davis, in a jumbo package to ensure space for the back to run.

Alford said he also likes to use both backs in the pistol formation, allowing for the runner to gain more downhill velocity on the handoff compared to the handoff in the shotgun set.

Alford knows what rush defense Ohio State will be facing on Saturday: a Spartan defense that has failed to allow success to any opposing running game.

It may not be about just the amount of yards on the ground or the amount of touchdowns scored on the ground. It’s about using the consistency of last week’s performance against Nebraska to make Ohio State that balanced threat it usually is.

But if Alford has to, his game plan still applies: break Michigan State by pounding the running game.

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