When J.K. Dobbins rolled Saturday, Ohio State rolled.
When he rolled his ankle, though, the Buckeye offense momentarily came to a screeching halt, and played a role in Ohio State’s 29-23 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
“He was really working through that, but I think it did affect his play a little bit,” Ohio State head coach Ryan Day said. “He didn’t have that, like I said, explosion. Couple of those first runs in the first half, he came out of the back end of those things –– he looked powerful. What a gritty performance by him to come back in the game and play.”
The junior running back ran for 144 yards on his first eight carries of the day –– all in the first half. With two runs of 60-plus yards Dobbins set the new single-season record for rushing yards in a season, and helped the Buckeyes jump out to a commanding 16-0 start.
Sophomore quarterback Justin Fields may have gotten the acclaim by season’s end –– winning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year and finishing fourth in Heisman voting –– but much of the season Dobbins was the engine that made the Buckeye offense run.
So it was no surprise when the La Grange, Texas, native made the first major play for the Buckeyes Saturday, taking a shotgun handoff 68 yards to the end zone –– untouched up the middle after a quick jump cut left Tiger defenders shook.
Later in the quarter, he struck again, rushing for 64 yards on a single carry, but was unable to punch it in. Though he was the catalyst to Ohio State’s quick start, Dobbins left points on the field for the Buckeyes early.
Fields led Dobbins with a pass to the end zone early in the second quarter, and it appeared he caught it, diving across the plane. However, the call was overturned as Dobbins could not secure the ball to the ground. The promising drive resulted in another field goal.
“The one to J.K. that they called a touchdown first and then they overturned, that was a tough one,” Day said. “That was four points there.”
On the very next Buckeye drive, Ohio State had a second-and-15 at the Clemson 16-yard-line, and Fields found Dobbins wide open on a screen with a red carpet rollout to the end zone. But Dobbins bobbled and dropped the ball. Ohio State traded in a potential seven points for three yet again.
When the momentum flipped in Clemson’s favor following a targeting call on redshirt sophomore cornerback Shaun Wade, it took the Tigers all of 1:35 to bring the game within two points, when Ohio State could’ve started with a 28-point lead.
“They got a lot of playmakers so they can score at any time,” Dobbins said. “We knew that the field goals weren’t enough.”
In between Clemson’s two quick scores to end the first half, Dobbins twisted awkwardly and was bent backward with a Clemson defender wrapped around his ankle, and he stayed down after the play.
He played on the first series of the second half, but went down again after his first play on the field. Dobbins went back to the locker room, and it looked as though the Buckeyes would have to continue without him.
In relief, redshirt freshman running back Master Teague –– who entered with 780 yards on the year –– could hardly get past the line of scrimmage. Teague finished with nine yards on seven attempts, with his longest rush going for just five yards.
After stopping Teague and the Buckeyes, Clemson scored again to take its first lead of the game, 21-16.
Dobbins ran out of the locker room to rejoin the team for its next drive, but he never looked the same. Dobbins ran for 32 yards on nine carries in the second half, after racking up 142 on his nine first-half attempts.
“You gotta fight through adversity,” Dobbins said. “That’s what we tried to do tonight, but we didn’t make enough plays.”
Still, Dobbins was integral in the Buckeyes’ final drive, down six with less than two minutes remaining.
With the Clemson defense playing back to avoid a big play, Fields found Dobbins on three check downs for 31 yards to help the Buckeyes get down to the Clemson 23.
But it was Olave that Fields targeted on the game’s final play, resulting in an interception that ended what is likely to be Dobbins’ last college football game.
“J.K. is a Buckeye legend for everything that he’s done for this program and the heart and soul he poured into it,” redshirt sophomore center Josh Myers said. “That was one of the more gutsy performances I’ve ever seen from a guy.”