In the most important moments of Ohio State’s season to date, J.K. Dobbins wasn’t on the field.
While Ohio State’s offense scored on three straight fourth-quarter drives to earn a 39-38 win over Penn State, the Buckeyes’ star freshman running back wasn’t on the field for any of them.
Dobbins has been Ohio State’s most productive runner this year, averaging more than 7.6 yards per carry on a team-high 113 carries, with an average of at least 5.5 yards per carry in every one of the Buckeyes’ eight games. But when Saturday’s game (and season) was on the line, and the Buckeyes needed to pass their way to a comeback win, Ohio State decided Mike Weber – who has averaged only 4.5 yards per carry this season – was the running back who should be in the game.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said they allow running back coach Tony Alford, who was not scheduled to speak with the media this week, to make decisions on running back playing time without micromanaging. Wilson did confirm Wednesday that the coaching staff considers Weber to be the team’s best pass-protecting running back, which played a part in why Dobbins didn’t see any snaps on the game’s most important possessions. But Wilson and Meyer also said they are confident in Dobbins’ ability to pass protect if he is on the field for the Buckeyes in a crucial situation later in the season.
"I think we felt that we were going to throw the ball a lot. And they were a heavy blitz team. And our six-man protection where the tailback blocks, J.K.’s done a nice job but Mike is our best pass-blocking tailback," Wilson said. "Mike Weber’s a little bit more experienced, a little stronger and Penn State was a big pressure team, but J.K.’s been awesome in pass pro, so I don’t have an issue with him playing one snap or anything."
Dobbins played the lion’s share of Ohio State’s snaps at running back in the Buckeyes’ first four games of the season, when Weber was battling a hamstring injury. Since then, the team’s running back snaps have since started to skew slightly in Weber’s favor, with Weber playing 48 snaps to Dobbins’ 39 on Saturday and 151 snaps to Dobbins’ 133 over the last four games. In addition to not playing on the all-important fourth quarter possessions, Dobbins didn’t play a single snap in the second quarter of Saturday’s game, despite starting the game.
Ohio State had discussed the possibility earlier this season of implementing a two-back set that would enable the Buckeyes to get both Dobbins and Weber on the field simultaneously now that both backs are fully healthy. To this point, however, the Buckeyes have yet to use such a package in a game this season. Wilson said it’s still something the Buckeyes could consider to their offense, but it’s not imminent at this point.
"It would be nice to get them on the field at the same time, but then what do you do?" Wilson said. "I felt earlier in the year when we struggled sometimes, I thought there was too much offense, it was hard to manage. So we want to keep expanding, we want to keep exploring, we want to keep playing them both. Maybe you get them on the field together. We finally tried getting some two tight ends together. But we got to be smart as we move forward."
That means Dobbins and Weber will have to be content to continue splitting snaps for now, and given that Weber is regarded as the team’s best pass protector, it leads one to wonder how much playing time Dobbins will see in big games later in the season, especially if Weber can start to show more of the pop that he showed last season as a runner.
Dobbins’ playing time could prove to be contingent on game situations, where Ohio State uses Dobbins more on drives when it is looking to run the ball and Weber more on drives where it is looking to pass the ball, like it did in the fourth quarter against Penn State, when the Buckeyes ran 14 straight passing plays. Wilson, though, says he does not give much consideration to which personnel is in the game – citing advice from his late coaching mentor, Randy Walker, who Wilson worked as an offensive coordinator for at Miami (Ohio) and Northwestern – when he calls plays.
The Buckeyes tend to keep one running back in the game for each full possession rather than alternating backs between plays, which can lead to the other running back standing on the sideline for a long period of time if either Dobbins or Weber is in the game for multiple series in a row.
Ultimately, though, it’s a good problem to have for the Buckeyes, who feel they can keep both backs fresh and trust either of their top two running backs any time they are in the game.
"I think we’re fortunate, basically we have two kids who are good enough to start and be elite players," Wilson said. "The freshman’s had a great year, Mike is now healthy. If nothing else, hopefully this is creating a healthy environment in a competitive room, because great teams have competition."