This Ohio State rushing offense has spoiled its fans this season.
Week after week, the Buckeyes have run a train over absolutely every team in their path, regardless of skill level. The success has become so consistent, mistakes tend to stick out like sore thumbs. Watching a team execute a zone run scheme with such brilliance — that even players at the professional level struggle to master — can make it easy to forget that these are still young men just beyond their teens. It’s unwise and unrealistic to ask them to consistently perform without error in the face of immense challenge and adversity game after game.
Penn State finally cracked what had previously been a sparkling Ohio State run game this past weekend, and yet the Buckeyes still managed to rumble for 229 team rushing yards after factoring in the yardage Justin Fields lost on three sacks. The Nittany Lions forced four fumbles on the afternoon, recovering three of them, and the Buckeye offensive line made various mistakes of their own throughout the contest. However, Fields made numerous excellent reads and reactions in the face of an aggressive Penn State defense that came in giving up the least yards per carry in the FBS this season (2.19), and that combined with J.K. Dobbins’ excellent vision and explosiveness proved to be the difference for Ohio State.
The first offensive play of the game for the Buckeyes showcases all of this. Penn State puts seven defenders in the box to match Ohio State’s seven blockers at the line, but their linebackers are better suited to stop Fields on a run to the strong side than Dobbins on the weak side, where there is more space to get to the edge. All of the blockers move towards the right after the snap, but Fields correctly identifies the linebackers are out of position relative to Dobbins. Jeremy Ruckert seals off the Will linebacker, the receivers get good chip blocks, and Dobbins is able to start the offense’s day with a massive 20 yard gain.
Fields continues to do well to recognize what’s in front of him by noting that Penn State has only placed five defenders in the box on a play where Ohio State has put five receivers out wide. Once the linebacker commits to the blitz, Fields immediately tucks the ball and looks for a running lane to pick up the 3rd Down conversion. Jonah Jackson does a tremendous job on this play of helping off his initial blocking assignment to pick up the blitz, and that late adjustment provides Fields with a running lane for the 1st Down that he otherwise likely wouldn’t have had. The insight gained from this play would end up setting up one of Ohio State’s massive 4th Down conversions later towards the end of the first half.
The next 3rd Down finds Ohio State’s offense in a similar situation to the previous one, though with over twice as many yards to gain. Penn State is far less aggressive in this case, bringing one less pass rusher off the line and opting to have a linebacker stay home and spy the quarterback to prevent another scrambling 1st Down. Unfortunately, Dobbins doesn’t come open on the underneath route until right after Fields has to step up in the pocket, and the linebacker spying him pinches down in an attempt to catch Fields off balance with no one to throw to.
But one of the things Fields does perhaps better than any other quarterback in the country is anticipate the movements of defenders while he’s in the pocket, and use their own momentum against them to create extra time to make decisions. In this case, Fields’ deke to the left causes the spy to miss since he’s forced to account for all the available space to the weak side, and the Buckeye receivers have already drawn Penn State’s secondary far enough away from the sticks that Fields is able to safely pick up the 1st Down while retreating towards the sideline.
Fields doesn’t have the top-end speed of scrambling savants like that of Lamar Jackson, but his ability to read and react to the positions of defenders on-the-fly and manipulate them in space makes him one of the most dangerous players with the ball in his hands in college football. It’s unlikely fans will ever see him rip off massive rushing touchdowns against elite competition, but this style of running lends itself to converting plays in big moments that would otherwise fail in the face of a defense playing it safe.
This is another one of the zone read plays the Buckeyes ran so frequently against Wisconsin in which the strong side defensive lineman is left unblocked as the read-man to allow the offensive linemen to immediately go next level. Since Fields has gashed the Nittany Lions for two massive conversions already on this drive, he correctly anticipates the lineman is going to favor him and makes the decision to hand the ball off to Dobbins. This allows Josh Myers and Jackson to head to the next level in search of linebackers, but since only one of them is lined up to the weak side, there’s not much either has to do to give Dobbins a window to hit the edge, pick up the 1st Down, and set up a 1st and Goal.
Finally, after avoiding vertical runs for nearly all of their opening drive, Ohio State decides to rush into the teeth of Penn State’s defense with the endzone in sight. It’s wise to do so in this situation, given not only has the focus been on getting to the edge so far, but also because arguably the only area in which the Nittany Lions’ run defense has been vulnerable this year is in stuffing short-yardage conversions around 1st Down markers and goal lines. As a result of Penn State putting eight in the box versus Ohio State’s seven blockers, the Buckeyes opt to leave the strong side defender on the edge unblocked on a play designed to the left to even out the responsibilities.
Not quite everyone is able to get their assignment, as Jackson is never able to get off his initial block with Myers to pick up the remaining safety in the box. However, Dobbins performs a timely cut to make the safety miss, and then turns himself into a missile to pick up the remaining yardage and get the Buckeyes on the board with their first touchdown of the day. This play serves as a great example of how a talented, savvy running back can sometimes make up for whatever blocking mistakes may occur in a zone running scheme.
Here’s the 4th Down conversion alluded to earlier set up by Fields’ improvised scramble on 3rd Down in the face of a five-man box. This time, the call is a QB Draw all the way, as noted by Myers heading past the line of scrimmage less than a couple seconds after snapping the ball. This is an excellent play call in that it doesn’t allow the lone linebacker an opportunity to blitz or spy, and as a result, Fields has a ton of space instantly open when he tucks and runs to convert and set up another goal-to-go opportunity for Ohio State before the end of the first half.
Another short yardage situation around the goal line, another attempt to even out the blocking responsibilities. This time, with nine defenders in the box and the play designed to the right, Ohio State opts to leave two weak side defenders unblocked. This allows Myers and Wyatt Davis to account for the two defenders lined up over the middle of the scrum, creating an opportunity for Brandon Bowen to seal off the Sam linebacker and open up a hole for Dobbins on the goal line. Luke Farrell gets the remaining defensive lineman out of the way, and although Myers is driven back a bit in the middle, it actually ends up helping out the Buckeyes as he inadvertently gives a bit of a box out to the defender coming unblocked off the weak side edge.
Way to use your ass, Josh Myers!
Fumbles literally kept the ball out of the hands of the Buckeyes for much of the third quarter, but their opening scoring drive of the second half showed they still had the advantage when it came to running the football. One play removed from going over 100 yards on the afternoon, Dobbins gets the ball on another zone read from Fields after the latter correctly identifies the unblocked weak side defensive end is favoring the quarterback. Penn State tries to get cute with an inside stunt from their strong side defensive end, and this leaves the the edge completely unaccounted for as Dobbins once again stretches towards the sideline. Even with Binjimen Victor whiffing on his block after trying to sell a route, Dobbins has so much space to operate that he manages to put a move on the Nittany Lion corner and truck ahead for another 1st Down conversion.
Yet another example of how a talented running back can make up for the mistakes of their teammates. Ruckert goes in motion to the weak side prior to the snap, but he and Thayer Munford appear to have a miscommunication regarding who picks up the defensive end. Ruckert immediately heads to the next level to take out the Mike linebacker, while Munford pinches down to help Jackson with the defensive tackle. Dobbins has to run horizontal along the 40 yard line just to get back to the line of scrimmage, but his effort ends up turning what should have almost certainly been a loss into a seven yard gain. A huge play given it came on the heels of a 1st Down false start in the opponent’s territory.
This had to be very frustrating for the Nittany Lions given they had a free shot at Dobbins, and likely left at least some of their defenders over-anxious to not get beat on the edge again. The very next play from scrimmage was Fields’ touchdown pass to Chris Olave off of play action. While most of the defense didn’t bite on the fake, the corner covering Olave had his eyes on the backfield before getting turned around on a double-move, allowing a window for Olave to high-point the ball in the end zone.
And, again, sometimes talent is so overbearing that it covers multiple mistakes. Unlike most of the runs out of shotgun formations on the afternoon, this is a designed zone dive play to Dobbins all the way. But Myers allows the Mike linebacker to rip underneath him towards the ball carrier, and Davis — rarely beat this season — falls victim to a swim move from his own blocking assignment.
But Dobbins is just too much of a damn cannonball for any of it to matter. He explodes directly up the middle and just barely manages to squeak through the smallest window that exists to avoid getting caught at the line of scrimmage and pick up yet another 1st Down. Dobbins may not have the finishing speed that his protégé Master Teague III possesses, but his burst out of the backfield is undeniable, and it often serves as the difference between plays that would be significant losses turning into miraculous or respectable gains.
Though Michigan and a possible second date with Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship remain — not to mention any of the other College Football Playoff contenders, Penn State was likely the most difficult rushing defense challenge Ohio State would have to face this season. Yet, even in the face of multiple sloppy turnovers and more miscues than usual from the Ohio State offensive line, J.K. Dobbins still managed to turn 36 carries into 157 rushing yards while Justin Fields added an additional 68 after sacks on a whopping 21 touches of his own.
All things considered, the Buckeyes proved once again that they are going to make any team pay that doesn’t align themselves correctly on every snap with whatever formation Ohio State’s offense is putting out on the field. Get cute or complacent, and they are going to maul whatever is in front of them every single time.
It should be downhill running the rest of the way for the best Buckeye rushing attack fans have seen since the days of Orlando Pace and Eddie George.