I remember in 2003 when Jamal Lewis became just the fifth NFL running back to achieve 2,000 rushing yards in a regular season. Chris Johnson, Adrian Peterson and Derrick Henry would repeat the feat in 2009, 2012 and 2020, respectively. It required such a particular amount of scheming on offense beyond the pure grit, longevity and skill from the running back position itself in order to get there. The mark is not one we see repeated with any sort of regularity.
Of course, Lewis, Johnson, Peterson and Henry all had 16 games to do it. Because they’re in the NFL.
It’s something we don’t see often in college, although technically it’s more prevalent in the college ranks. In total, 27 college running backs have made the 2,000-yard club.It is both awe inspiring, because all those players managed to do so in fewer games, and realistic, because there’s a much larger volume of teams and backs in college football. Of course, we have to account for the fact there are some truly sieve-like defenses that allow for prolific rushers that we don’t see in the NFL.
All that said, there’s been but one running back to meet the mark in Ohio State program history. Yes, the crown jewel of Ohio State rushing records in recent years has to go to JK Dobbins, who managed to get to a 2,000-yard season in 2019 against some of the most challenging defenses in college football.
It’s impressive enough to have a 1,000-yard rushing season, fragmented as the running back position can be among different backs in a given program. JK Dobbins had three. And throw in his pièce de résistance, a 2,003-yard season in 2019, for good measure.
Dobbins was a force from the moment he stepped on the field as a true freshman against Indiana in the 2017 season opener. But his 2019 performance was something to behold.
Dobbins had a rare freshman season, having started his career by filling in for an injured Mike Weber. Weber, who’d had a breakout season in 2016, would miss the start of the season with a hamstring injury suffered in fall camp, paving the way for Dobbins to become a fan favorite. Dobbins broke an Ohio State program record for rushing yards by a freshman with 1,403. He averaged 7.2 rush yards per game in a year that was just bananas for Ohio State backs (Weber would average 6.2 yards per carry and score 10 touchdowns in 2017).
The back certainly took a step back during his sophomore season, when Dobbins had only (“only”) 1,053 yards. It was also his lowest average per rushing attempt of his career (4.6 yards per rush). Of course, Dobbins was still splitting time with Weber, and the running game in general was struggling behind a challenged offensive line after an outstanding season the year before.
Then there was 2019. Dobbins led the Buckeyes in rushing every game that year except two, and that was because, in those two games, Ryan Day was likely trying to protect the health of his star running back in total blowouts of Miami (OH) and Maryland. The Buckeyes totaled 70+ points in each, and it was not a situation in which Ohio State’s feature back needed to rally the team to victory. In total, Dobbins hit the 100-yard mark 10 times in 2019 and, bouncing back from his sophomore season, averaged 6.7 yards per rush.
Even more impressive, Dobbins’ best performances came in several of Ohio State’s most important games of the season. His season high came against No. 13 Michigan, when the junior had 211 rushing yards. He recorded 172 yards against No. 8 Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship game, and 174 versus Clemson in the College Football Playoff semi-final.
Also of note was just how Dobbins came to achieve his 2,000+ yard total in the end. Heading into the Buckeyes’ bowl game against Clemson, Dobbins was still 99 yards short of George’s established single season record of 1,927 rushing yards. It took Dobbins just a quarter in his final game to meet the mark.
It takes the sting out from that loss a little. Not really, but a little bit.
It’s also yet another story of another great back in Ohio State history, ranking right alongside names like Griffin, George and Elliott — and yet none of these greats managed to achieve this mark. Eddie George came just 73 yards short in his 1995 Heisman Trophy season. Ezekiel Elliott nearly hit the mark twice in 2014 and 2015, coming within 200 yards in both seasons. Archie Griffin had only (again, “only”) 1,695 yards in 1974.
Dobbins’ record is part of a great tradition, and one that extends throughout the conference. While Dobbins is the singular 2,000-yard rusher in Ohio State program history, he is one of eight Big Ten players to accomplish such a feat. We can all marvel at the fact Wisconsin’s Jonathon Taylor and Ron Dayne each did it twice, and Taylor came within 23 yards a third time.
Of course, some will say that Dobbins benefited from an expanded season. Dobbins had 14 games in the 2019 season to get to 2,000 yards. George had just 13 games. Archie Griffin had just 11-12 games.
Dobbins finished his time at Ohio State second in career yards behind Griffin with 4,459 in three seasons. He never missed a game and started all but two during his time in Columbus. Further, 2019 was his only year as a feature back following Weber’s departure.
Records are cool, but they’re even cooler when they have an actual, tangible impact on the team. That’s where Dobbins really progressed. After totalling just seven touchdowns as a true freshman, Dobbins scored 10 as a sophomore and then 21 (yes, 21!) in his last season in Columbus. Those 21 touchdowns played a key part in getting the Buckeyes to their perfect regular season record.
Might the 2,000-yard mark be repeated? Maybe. Ohio State has had some outstanding running backs in recent history but, just like in the NFL, it takes something of a perfect storm of events for backs to gain those kinds of yards consistently throughout the season. But Dobbins was special, because he didn’t just rack up yards — instead, he racked up yards when his team needed them the most.