It shouldn’t have been this easy for Ohio State, and yet somehow, it was.
Due to unfortunate weather conditions this past Saturday across the Midwest, the Buckeyes weren’t able to play their usual brand of dynamic offense against the Wisconsin Badgers for the majority of the game. Rain and wind created a slick environment with less-than-ideal visibility, which meant the path to victory rested squarely on the shoulders of the running game. What was already Ohio State’s most difficult test of the season to date given Wisconsin’s top-flight defense became exponentially more difficult in the face of having to play the contest on the Badgers’ terms.
The Buckeyes passed their test with flying colors. Or, more accurately, they ran this test with flying colors.
Now, it’s important to note that offensive balance still proved to be of massive importance to the Buckeyes’ game plan, as Justin Fields made several key throws on the afternoon to Chris Olave and J.K. Dobbins that got the offense out of same hairy 3rd down situations. But the game firmly started to swing in favor of Ohio State when Ryan Day committed to running the football in the second half, and as has been the case in the previous two victories, zone runs proved to be the bread and butter.
As early as the first quarter, however, it was clear that the Buckeyes had a plan to use read options to confuse the Badgers’ aggressive defense. In particular, they enjoyed picking on Isaiahh Loudermilk (#97) throughout the game:
All of the typical zone blocking elements — feeling out double teams at the line of scrimmage, sealing off linebackers at the next level, etc. — are present on this play, but what made Ohio State’s game plan peculiar was a clear willingness to leave one of the interior defensive linemen in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defense as the readable defender on option plays. Wyatt Davis opts to help Josh Myers with the nose tackle before heading after a linebacker, and Brandon Bowen immediately goes to the next level without a second thought. Fields identifying that Loudermilk is favoring him over Dobbins allows Ohio State to overcome a seven-man front with only six blockers, which springs Dobbins for an easy second down conversion on the ground.
This is a nearly identical play from later in the second quarter, with the only difference being Ohio State has an extra tight end lined up on the weak side as opposed to a third receiver. Davis opts to crush the noseguard this time instead of going next level himself, since Myers has a bit of an easier path to the next level assuming Fields keeps the ball. However, Loudermilk sticks with Fields again, then Fields correctly identifies the decision and opts to hand the ball off to Dobbins on what proves to be another easy first down run. Myers doesn’t get a good block on the linebacker, but Bowen has already sealed off the other so effectively that by the time either of them even has an opportunity to make a play, Dobbins is already out at the 30-yard line.
Plays like these set the table for the second half. With Wisconsin’s defense keying on Fields for much of the first thirty minutes, Dobbins forced them to readjust once the running game started to open up in the early stages of the third quarter:
Unlike the previous two highlights, this is a designed hand-off all the way, with Dobbins headed towards the weak side edge from the moment he gets the football. Myers drives the nose tackle three yards downfield, Thayer Munford does an excellent job sealing the edge linebacker out of the play, and Jonah Jackson sets up the running lane for Dobbins with a great block on Wisconsin’s nearest interior linebacker. Dobbins puts a terrific move on the lone safety back for the Badgers, and suddenly the Buckeyes find themselves with a 1st and goal opportunity just over five minutes into the second half.
Keep the last three plays in mind before watching this next one. Fields has been the focus of Loudermilk all game on read options, which has left massive running lanes open for Dobbins, and Dobbins is starting to heat up with the ball in his hands. Can you guess what happens next?
Loudermilk — and damn near the entire Wisconsin linebacking corps — is frozen by the possibility of Dobbins getting out on a strong side run again, so Fields pulls the ball back and has an enormous hole to his left to run through. Myers — with help from Davis — once again crushes his assignment off the line before going to the next level and sealing the remaining linebacker out of the play. Meanwhile, Wisconsin’s safety makes the mistake of favoring Dobbins before reading the direction the ball is going, and Garrett Wilson’s matchup at cornerback is so squarely focused on coverage that by the time he realizes what’s happening, Wilson has already blocked him out of the play. Jackson and Munford get great blocks on the weak side to open up the hole, and Fields is able to take an awkward dive into the endzone on what was an otherwise unscathed run.
A touchdown like this for Fields would not have been possible in the first half. However, because of Ryan Day’s contextual and gradual playcalling combined with the respect Dobbins commands over the course of the game, the Buckeyes are able to blow the Badgers’ game plan up in their face. That they did so against arguably the best defense in college football is nothing short of outrageously impressive.
But as good as Ohio State’s run blocking has been all season, offensive linemen — like all humans — are also imperfect creatures. They can’t nail their assignments all the time, and in those moments, the difference can come down strictly to who’s carrying the rock. Wisconsin had plenty of opportunities to capitalize on Ohio State’s schematic mistakes in this game, but when a team has a player like J.K. Dobbins, sometimes that just doesn’t matter:
Jackson is late getting to the second level on this inside zone run, which allows one of Wisconsin’s linebackers to meet Dobbins a yard behind the line of scrimmage. In most situations against such a talented defense front, this results in a loss. But Dobbins is simply a freak for his size, and he hits the poor Badger with an absolutely devastating stiff arm to extend the play and turn a negative into a positive. That extension allows Davis to recover from his momentary stumble out of position by picking up the defender that shifted over with Rashod Berry before the play, and this springs an enormous hole for Dobbins that puts Ohio State once again 1st and goal territory.
Not even half a minute removed from clowning three of Wisconsin defenders, Dobbins takes an inside hand-off on a play he has to know is going to be an absolute scrum. With eight Buckeyes up on the line versus an eight man defensive box on first and goal, almost everyone in the stadium can guess the play call. This time, Wisconsin doesn’t bother with Fields, and if Dobbins runs the play as designed, he likely doesn’t end up gaining anything.
But instead, Dobbins strings together two incredible jump cuts in quick succession to change the direction of his run, force the remaining safety to the edge, and then burst back up the middle for the Buckeyes’ second rushing touchdown of the quarter. Bear in mind, the Badgers’ defense had only given up two rushing touchdowns all season prior to the start of this game. In less than 45 seconds across merely two plays, Dobbins puts on display his devastating combination of power and shiftiness that places Ohio State’s rushing attack among the very best in the sport.
When a running back that talented gets a flawless blocking performance from an offensive line with the schematic intelligence on the level of Ohio State’s, there is simply no way to stop a freight train like this one:
Depending on what one considers the parameters of the box, Wisconsin has eight defenders here against six Ohio State blockers on another inside zone run for Dobbins. Not one of them even gets a single touch on Dobbins on his way to sprinting towards his second touchdown of the afternoon. This is an inside zone run that invokes many similarities to Master Teague III’s 73-yard touchdown against Northwestern, as Dobbins makes his cut underneath Munford — the left tackle — while the weak side of the line plus Myers moves the line of scrimmage nearly three yards downfield. This play saw Ohio State rip off a touchdown run with a six versus eight blocking disadvantage against the best run defense in the country. There simply isn’t another college football team that can do things like this.
Penn State and Michigan — plus what could very likely be another date with Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship — will remain difficult challenges ahead for the Ohio State running attack and offense as a whole. But after tearing Michigan State’s coveted defense in half for 323 rushing yards and then shredding Wisconsin this past Saturday, it’s hard to imagine Ohio State losing the battle at the line of scrimmage ever again for the remainder of 2019.
Dobbins and the entire Buckeye offensive line are playing on another level right now, and if that doesn’t change, the rest of the College Football Playoff contenders are in serious trouble.