Often times, the truly best players in the game make their presence known from the start.
J.K. Dobbins broke Ohio State’s single-game freshman rushing record in his career debut against Indiana on August 31st, 2017. He failed to score a touchdown that night, but Dobbins still came out of seemingly nowhere in relief of an injured Mike Weber Jr. to touch the ball over thirty times for north of 200 scrimmage yards in college football’s first game of the season. Dobbins would seldom see equivalent workloads through the remainder of the season and the next, but it was clear to anyone watching that night that Ohio State’s next great running back had already arrived at such a young age.
Now, some two and a quarter years later, Dobbins has a more than legitimate argument that he has become the best halfback in all of college football.
On his way to capturing his fourth Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honor this season, Dobbins became the first Ohio State player ever to post over 250 yards from scrimmage in a game against Michigan, as well as the rivalry’s first skill position player to score four touchdowns in a single installment of The Game. Ohio State’s offensive line has gotten a ton of well-deserved credit this season for the success of the running game, but Dobbins showcased this past Saturday that the Buckeyes’ first class ground attack has everything to do with his own talent as well as that of the slobs.
Though Michigan has an unquestionably great defense on a national scale, their rushing defense clearly falls short of the standards set by that of Wisconsin and Penn State, two units that Dobbins managed to navigate with success already this season. Because of that, it was likely the Buckeyes were going to have an easier time against the Wolverines than the Badgers or Nittany Lions when it came to running simpler concepts of their zone rushing scheme, and that’s exactly what happened from the opening drive.
Inside zone — a play marked by the tight end coming back along the line of scrimmage to pick up the weak side defender — is a play Ohio State has run all season against most of their lower-ranked opponents, and it sprung a massive gain for Dobbins on the Buckeyes’ first drive of the game. Luke Farrell works back from the strong side to pick up the edge linebacker, which allows the rest of the line to shift their assignments over towards the direction Dobbins receives the ball. Michigan elects to come out in a 3-3-5 alignment on 2nd and long, and Wyatt Davis takes advantage by immediately going to the next level without chipping any linemen and picking up the Sam linebacker.
Dobbins probably could have ran through the hole created by Davis and Brandon Bowen here — and might have been able to avoid the strip attempt — but he cuts back inside before making another immediate move outside to navigate the traffic in the middle of the field. The bounce after the fumble fortuitously allowed him to make a recovery without significantly breaking stride, but Dobbins still did the smart thing here by not going to the edge and forcing the Wolverines the commit extra players to the outside on subsequent plays. By keeping direction with the design of the play, Dobbins kept the Michigan defense honest and set up Ohio State well for carries later on in the game that actually meant to head for the edge.
Dobbins’ second touchdown of the day was a perfect example of just that. Showing a six man box with two shallow safeties in the red zone, Michigan commits down to the run once they identify Ohio State’s line all moving forward in unison towards the strong side of the field. Dobbins initially shows intent to rush inside before bouncing back a few steps to follow Bowen depending on where the latter’s block ends up. Bowen’s not quite able to get to the edge in time, so instead he pushes the Michigan defender further outside to give Dobbins another hole to cut directly into.
Thanks to an excellent chip on the linebacker from Jeremy Ruckert earlier in the play, there’s enough of a scrum along the strong side line of scrimmage to allow Dobbins to burst through the temporary hole created by Bowen for an easy touchdown. Had Dobbins been forcing more carries outside on earlier plays, it’s likely Michigan adjusts their alignment to compensate for Ohio State’s continued attempts to beat them on the edge, and temporary windows for success such as this one don’t make themselves as apparent.
Now having been taken advantage of on the strong side edge throughout this first half, Michigan crashes that side without taking into account that Dobbins is in a position to receive the ball going to the left. Ohio State expects this, and runs inside zone once again to the opposite side, with Rashod Berry working back to take out the blitzing safety.
However, because the Wolverine linebackers anticipate the direction of the play incorrectly, Berry doesn’t even need to get a block on his man as Jonah Jackson works up from a chip to block the Mike linebacker and let Dobbins cruise to his third touchdown of the first half. Michigan had an eight on six advantage in the box here against Ohio State in an obvious short-yardage rushing situation, and still couldn’t make a stop because they got overzealous committing to one side of the field. Plays like this in the first half made it fairly obvious that the Buckeyes would have the Wolverine run defense outmatched for the entirety of the game.
Fresh out of the locker room, that continued to be the case. Coming out under center on the first play of the drive — a true rarity for the Ohio State offense in the post-Tressel era — the Buckeyes run a zone dive out of the gate, probably the simplest running play one has in the book of zone rushing concepts. Michigan’s overzealous defensive style gets to them again, as they all crash the middle of the left hash while their safety backs himself in coverage out of the camera frame even well after Ohio State snaps the ball.
Seeing the scrum and that Berry has already worked his blocking assignment on the edge back to the inside, Dobbins makes a simple cut merely a step after receiving the ball that turns this play into a 40 yard gain on the Buckeyes’ first offensive play of the second half. Given Michigan’s biggest point of correction at halftime had to have been reading and stopping Dobbins with the ball in his hands, this must have been an absolutely devastating first play for the Wolverine players and coaches to immediately surrender in the third quarter.
Simplicity continued to rule the second half on the ground, and by the time the fourth quarter came around, the Wolverines were getting absolutely tossed along the line of scrimmage by the Buckeyes’ offensive line. This is another zone dive out of an under center formation, and by the time Dobbins makes it back to the line of scrimmage after receiving the hand-off, nearly every Wolverine other than Aidan Hutchinson gets pushed over three yards downfield.
With the whole defense reading the direction of the line towards the weak side and crashing the middle of the field again, all it takes is a simple jump cut to the right for Dobbins to totally break this play open. Michigan’s strong side defensive backs completely run themselves out of the play, and while Dobbins doesn’t usually possess the top-end speed to top-off these big plays with scores, he’s gassed the Wolverine defense so much all day to this point that the safety pulls up due to fatigue and gives Dobbins a window to leap into the end zone for touchdown number four.
Dobbins’ rushing performance was mesmerizing, but what really put him over the top and showcased his completeness as a player this past Saturday were his receiving skills. With the exception of a bad wide-open drop for a walk-in touchdown against Indiana earlier this year, Dobbins has quietly been one of Ohio State’s most reliable pass catchers all season. In key moments, this has gotten the team out of some hairy situations, and it’s also a big reason why the Buckeyes have been so efficient at converting 3rd Downs throughout 2019.
The angle route — also referred to as “Texas” — is one of the most dangerous and annoying routes a running back can possess in their arsenal. It requires an acute sense of when to cut, an ability to sell a directional fake, and provides tremendous opportunity for the recipient after-the-catch. While Garrett Wilson gets quite a chip here with some questionable legality, Dobbins actually sells his route before the block so well that the Michigan defender first reads the outside edge when searching for Dobbins after getting his bearings back.
By the time the defender assigned to the running back in man coverage actually realizes what is happening, Dobbins already has the ball at the 28 yard line and has all the space he needs to make the last line of defense miss between him and the 1st Down. Given falling short would have resulted in Ohio State having to kick a field goal and failing to answer Michigan’s opening drive touchdown, this proved to be one of the most critical snaps of the entire game for the Buckeyes. While the nifty juke in space got most of the attention in this highlight, it was Dobbins’ route-running ability that made this play work.
Angle routes have fairly high success rates, but Dobbins’ ability to sell fakes is what routinely allows him to get open for big gains when he catches the ball. This was the first play Ohio State ran after Dobbins’ massive 40+ yard gain to open the second half, and while Dobbins has struggled in pass protection all season, his little hop into a blocking stance after the play action fake causes Michigan’s defense to completely disregard him as Fields rolls out to the left with the football. It’s such an effective deke that there isn’t a single Wolverine within ten yards of Dobbins in any direction when he receives the pass, and that two-play burst of individual brilliance suddenly gives Ohio State yet another red zone opportunity less than a minute into the third quarter.
J.K. Dobbins is simply a sensational football player. While he may not possess the speed to close out runs and exemplary pass blocking ability of Ezekiel Elliot — Ohio State’s last historically-great running back — he has his own set of halfback skills that allows him to thrive at the position. Namely, his keen vision, sense of direction, burst out of the backfield, and strength at all levels of his body allow him to consistently punish teams that are not perfectly aligned to take away any slivers of holes to run through. Dobbins plays the halfback position with such a high degree of intelligence that he often is able to overcome the few mistakes his offensive line makes in front of him, and his receiving ability out of the backfield serves as an ace-in-the-hole for getting the Buckeyes out of uncomfortable scenarios.
It’s no fluke that Dobbins is second on the Ohio State all-time rushing list after only three seasons, two of which were spent in a timeshare with a running back that — to be honest — never quite measured up. There have been some truly impressive specimens to play halfback in scarlet and grey over the years, but Dobbins has proven beyond a shadow of a doubt this season that his name belongs not only in conversation with the best in school history, but among the best in college football right now.