Beating the same team twice is never easy, and Wisconsin absolutely demonstrated why that’s the case during the 2019 Big Ten Championship game in what nearly turned out to be a very sad ending to the conference season for Ohio State.
For a team as undeniably talented as the Badgers, it’s much easier to fix mistakes that are on film against a forthcoming opponent than it is to build off of previous success in the prior contest. Wisconsin saw they did not spread out their defense enough against Ohio State back at the end of October and adjusted accordingly. The result was a disastrous first half performance from Justin Fields in both rushing and throwing the football, and the Buckeyes entered the locker room trailing their competition for the first time all season.
But fortunately, Ohio State came out for the second half and totally dominated the game from then on out, holding Wisconsin to zero points. Fields played significantly better through the air, but it was the consistency of the running game that not only kept things from getting out of hand in the first half, but also allowed Ohio State to chew out the clock once they took the lead.
Let’s take a look at what J.K. Dobbins, the Ohio State offensive line, and even the Buckeyes’ tight ends and receivers did well when it came to running the football:
One carry into the game, it sure seemed as if a repeat performance of Ohio State’s bulldozing in the first game against Wisconsin was in store. Dobbins goes for 13 yards here on what’s nothing more than a simple zone right play where the Badger safeties get caught at the snap communicating with each other instead of keeping their eyes on the backfield. Brandon Bowen — arguably the best offensive lineman Ohio State had all night — starts his game off strong by chipping the defensive tackle lined up in the A gap to help Wyatt Davis before moving up field and totally blocking the Will linebacker out of the play. Luke Farrell gets a great seal-off block on the strong side defensive end, and Chris Olave does well to attack the Wisconsin safety directly off the snap, which leaves Dobbins with a much easier opportunity to force a missed tackle against one of the Badgers’ cornerbacks.
It was shocking to see Wisconsin come out with only six players in the box on the first snap of the game, given their biggest problem in their previous meeting versus Ohio State was stopping the run. However, their strategy paid off, as they correctly anticipated that the Buckeyes would try to throw the ball more in this game, particularly when they had to play from behind. Spreading out their defense gave Fields much more difficult windows for throws, and while Dobbins managed to gain positive yards on most of his carries, Fields did not have nearly the same success on the ground outside of scrambles on 3rd and Long.
One new twist in this game on the same inside zone concepts we saw from Ohio State all season was motioning the tight end from the outside prior to the snap. Most of the time the Buckeyes have run inside zone plays, the tight end is already lined up on the line of scrimmage. If there’s any pre-snap movement from the tight ends, it’s usually just to allow them the chance to move to the other end of the line and get reset in their stance.
However, this was the first of many instances in this game where the tight end is given a chance to build momentum and slam into the weak side defense, which allows the rest of the offensive line to get further out to the strong side. In this case, Rashod Berry doesn’t actually get an opportunity to block because his assignment is reading Fields on the hand off. But Berry’s mere presence allows the rest of the line to aggressively move right with the direction of the play, which gives Jonah Jackson a chance to immediately head for the second level and pick up the Will linebacker. Dobbins still gets hit three yards past the line of scrimmage, but through sheer strength and balance is able to turn this play into a nine yard gain.
The TE motion inside zone actually sprung the largest gain of the afternoon for Dobbins. With Wisconsin totally favoring their spread-out strategy at this point given their desire to stall any comeback attempts through the air, they left their defense totally out of alignment in the event Dobbins were to receive a handoff going right. Farrell comes in motion and takes the weak side defensive end out of the blocking equation, which leaves Ohio State’s offensive line with a 5v4 blocking advantage.
With no linebacker support behind them, Wisconsin’s strong side defensive linemen are powerless against Wyatt Davis and Brandon Bowen. It doesn’t help that the Badger secondary is playing so soft pre-snap that Olave is able to cheat inside to help seal off the edge before turning back upfield to give Dobbins an opportunity to cut slightly back inside for a bigger gain. Given the Buckeyes had first and goal after this play, it’s a shame Dobbins only saw one more carry before Fields fumbled the football.
Joel Klatt spotlighted Austin Mack on the Buckeyes’ first touchdown of the day given what probably should have been called holding, but the real hero of this run for Ohio State was Jeremy Ruckert. With Wyatt Davis harboring a shoulder injury, the Buckeyes had to slide Bowen over to right guard and install Nicholas Petit-Frere at right tackle. Petit-Frere unfortunately slants too far inside on this play and isn’t able to get a hand on any defender, but Ruckert makes an incredible adjustment on his block that not only takes out the Mike linebacker, but also the strong side defensive end. On a day where Ohio State’s tight ends shined with respect to blocking the football, this might have been the best play of all from that group. Incredibly, this wasn’t even Ruckert’s best moment on a scoring play in this game.
One of the mistakes Wisconsin’s defense consistently made on Ohio State’s successful running plays throughout this game was having a linebacker crash directly into the inside of the offensive line. Doing that just gave a Buckeye team trying to execute a zone scheme less to worry about with respect to getting their blockers to the next level, and it allowed Ohio State’s wide receivers to target the safeties on their blocks while Dobbins focused on getting to the edge and forcing cornerbacks into uncomfortable tackling situations.
With the Sam linebacker running directly into the scrum on this play, Bowen gets to stay home and maul the defensive lineman in his gap. Meanwhile, Farrell is able to seal off the defensive end once again, and Mack makes a beeline for the safety in an attempt to give Dobbins a one-on-one situation versus Wisconsin’s outside defensive back. Mack whiffs on his block, but had he taken out the safety and Dobbins made the lone remaining man miss, this could have been another enormous outside run for the Buckeyes.
Next play, Wisconsin did the same thing with the Will linebacker, as he crashes directly into the A gap before even reading the direction of the play. This gives Jackson a much easier opportunity to take him out of contention to make a tackle on Dobbins. Davis is able to go next level immediately and pick up the Mike linebacker, while Bowen and Farrell totally block their assignments out of the play thanks to each of the defenders overplaying the edge in wake of the previous snap.
Berry, lined up in the slot here, doesn’t quite make his own block on the edge. But the Badgers are so focused on not getting beat outside here that when Dobbins cuts back inside through the hole Davis and Bowen have created, the Wisconsin safety has to retreat from the sideline back towards the middle of the field. Dobbins gets an easy opportunity to create a missed tackle by cutting back outside underneath Berry, and suddenly the Buckeyes have completely flipped their field position in the span of two plays.
Another inside zone featuring motion from the tight end, although Dobbins is really what makes this play work more than anything else. Berry comes in motion from the outside once again, and Wisconsin has seen this enough now to understand that this is a dead giveaway for a zone run to the opposite side of where the tight end is running. But once Dobbins catches both linebackers reading right, he cuts back in the opposite direction, where Berry has taken out the weak side edge.
This already was going to be a nice first down gain to end the quarter, but then Dobbins puts a nasty juke on the Wisconsin safety in space to pick up another six yards and set up 2nd and Short. Unfortunately, K.J. Hill didn’t really make an effort to throw an effective block here or it could have been an even bigger gain, but given this is a play designed to the opposite side of the field from where Hill is, that can be somewhat forgiven. Plays like this are what make Dobbins one of the most intelligent running backs in college football.
Finally, we get to the drive that Ohio State used to kill almost the entire 4th quarter following Hill’s second touchdown grab of the game. This drive started at the 10:36 mark and ended roughly six minutes later with a Blake Haubeil field goal on 4th and Goal. The first play set the tone, as it would be the first of four carries Dobbins would have on this drive that went for at least seven yards.
The weak side of Ohio State’s offensive line didn’t have a ton of success in this game, but with the contest far into its later stages by this point, the running game has really started to wear on the Wisconsin defense. As a result, everybody along the line gets a chance to shine on this drive. With this being a simple zone off tackle run to the left side, Josh Myers gets a quick chip on Jackson’s assignment at the line of scrimmage before going after the Mike linebacker, and Thayer Munford follows suit by going directly after the remaining linebacker in space.
Interestingly, despite Ohio State clearly being in chew clock mode, Wisconsin’s defense is still favoring a spread over strength approach at this stage as evidenced by playing both of their safeties back in a 3-3-5 formation. Against a back like Dobbins with a fleet of All-Big Ten maulers in front of him, that’s free cheese.
For whatever reason, Wisconsin did not adjust their defensive personell despite giving up 20 yards to Dobbins on the first three plays of this drive. Favoring speed over strength ended up costing the Badgers dearly, even on plays where the Buckeyes made mistakes in their blocking assignments. Berry shows motion from the outside here as he has on previous inside zone runs this game, but cuts it off short to line up on the strong side so Ohio State can run another off tackle play. But Davis gets blown up at the line, Bowen gets confused on which linebacker he’s supposed to block downfield, and the weak side defensive end comes in unblocked as Dobbins gets stalled in the backfield.
For almost any other running back, this play is a two yard loss through no fault of their own. But Dobbins is a freak, not only anticipating the arrival of the weak side defensive end despite not even being able to see him, but then picking up nine yards on the play almost entirely after contact while Wisconsin’s defense needs seven players to bring him down. Dobbins’ effort here is the difference between an Ohio State 3rd and Long with a little over seven minutes remaining and the continuation of a critical clock-killing drive for the Buckeyes.
One of the intentions we saw from Ohio State in the previous meeting with Wisconsin that didn’t show up as much in this game was the desire to put stress on the interior defensive linemen in read option situations. Given the funky status of Fields’ knee, it was probably a wise decision to seldom put the quarterback in a position to run unless absolutely necessary. But it’s clear on this play the offensive line had no intention of blocking Wisconsin’s strong side defensive end, as Bowen immediately blocks back inside without even looking at him while Berry targets the Sam linebacker on the edge.
Once Fields reads the defensive end is targeting him and hands the ball off to Dobbins, all that’s left is to account for the Mike linebacker since the Badger corners continue to play far back off the line. Garrett Wilson stares down the Mike before the ball is even snapped, and runs three yards upfield before cutting back inside to chip the linebacker and give Dobbins a window for some additional yardage. Dobbins is able to pick up the first down, and the Buckeyes have a solid red zone opportunity to put some more points up and cushion their lead a bit as the game winds down into its closing stages.
It wasn’t the prettiest or most dominant performance we’ve seen from Ohio State’s run game this season, and it was certainly a far cry from when the Buckeyes totally steamrolled the Badgers in the second half of their first meeting at the end of October. But make no mistake, putting up 172 team rushing yards in a rematch against one of the best defenses in college football that has film on hand to correct mistakes from barely over a month ago is nothing short of monumentally impressive. The College Football Playoff committee may not quite have agreed, but this is still a game Ohio State’s running game should be profoundly proud of.
However, the greatest challenge still remains for these Buckeyes. Clemson is arguably the best team in college football at the line of scrimmage in nearly all facets, and if Ohio State wants to add another National Championship to their collection, it’s going to take the best effort we’ve seen yet from college football’s most impressive running game this season to get there.