Repairing Ohio State's Rushing Attack Will Be Crucial to Ryan Day's Success in Year One

By Chris Lauderback on May 9, 2019 at 11:05 am
J.K. Dobbins ran for over 100 yards in just three games last season.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

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On the surface, Ohio State's offense fared well last season racking up 42.4 points per game, good for 8th-best in the nation. 

Quarterback Dwayne Haskins anchored the team's success throwing for over 4,800 yards and 50 touchdowns for the nation's 2nd-most prolific passing attack, trailing only Washington State. 

With the passing game clicking on all cylinders however, the running game suffered. The Buckeyes, traditionally a rushing powerhouse, averaged 171 yards per game, good for 69th in the land while the team's 4.21 yards per carry slotted 76th nationally and easily served as the worst mark of the Urban Meyer era. 

J.K. Dobbins, while leading Ohio State with 1,053 rushing yards, averaged just 4.6 yards per carry – the worst result for the team's leading rusher during Meyer's seven-year run. 

Even more notable, Dobbins' 4.6 yards per carry last season paled in comparison to the 7.2 average he boasted as a true freshman in 2017 which nearly tied Carlos Hyde's school record of 7.3 yards per carry for any Buckeye to lead his team in rushing.

In fact, not since Meyer's first season had the team's leading rusher averaged less than 6.0 yards per carry when Braxton Miller averaged 5.2 yards per try in an aerially-challenged offense. 

YARDS PER CARRY METRICS DURING URBAN MEYER ERA
YEAR TEAM YPC NATL RANK LEADING RUSHER YPC 2ND LEADING RUSHER YPC
2018 4.21 76 J.K. DOBBINS 4.6 MIKE WEBER 5.5
2017 5.78 8 J.K. DOBBINS 7.2 J.T. BARRETT 4.8
2016 5.47 17 MIKE WEBER 6.0 J.T. BARRETT 4.1
2015 5.62 9 EZEKIEL ELLIOTT 6.3 J.T. BARRETT 5.9
2014 5.75 11 EZEKIEL ELLIOTT 6.9 J.T. BARRETT 5.5
2013 6.80 1 CARLOS HYDE 7.3 BRAXTON MILLER 6.2
2012 5.20 20 BRAXTON MILLER 5.6 CARLOS HYDE 5.2

Dobbins posted only three games of 100+ rushing yards including 121 versus TCU on 6.7 per carry, 163 versus Nebraska on 7.1 per try and a 203-yard day on 37 carries against Maryland. 

Similarly, Dobbins' running mate, Mike Weber, posted just two 100-yard outings with one coming against Oregon State (186 yards, 9.3 ypc) and the other in a road win over Michigan State (104 yards, 4.7 ypc). 

Of course, the success or failure of any running back isn't solely dependent on his own skills. Playcalling, run/pass balance and the offensive line's effectiveness all play key roles. 

Whether or not last season's run/pass balance was a huge factor in the running game's inconsistency is a bit of a chicken/egg conundrum. With Haskins shredding defense's week to week, many defenses still foolishly crowded the box daring Ohio State to run, often creating a numbers disadvantage at the line of scrimmage. As a result, Meyer and Ryan Day relied on a host of short, safe passes. Also, when the offensive linemen are called upon to pass block 50% of the snaps, they could lose some nasty and effectiveness. 

Another factor was simply the offensive line not being as good as the other six offensive lines of the Meyer era. 

OFFENSIVE LINE STARTERS DURING URBAN MEYER ERA
YEAR LEFT TACKLE LEFT GUARD CENTER RIGHT GUARD RIGHT TACKLE
2018 MUNFORD PRIDGEON JORDAN KNOX / DAVIS PRINCE
2017 JONES JORDAN PRICE BOWEN / KNOX PRINCE
2016 JONES JORDAN ELFLEIN PRICE PRINCE
2015 DECKER PRICE BOREN ELFLEIN FARRIS
2014 DECKER PRICE BOREN ELFLEIN BALDWIN
2013 MEWHORT NORWELL LINSLEY HALL DECKER
2012 MEWHORT NORWELL LINSLEY HALL FRAGEL

Thayer Munford stepped in as a first-year starter at left tackle and turned in a strong performance that didn't get the accolades it deserved. In my view, he was Ohio State's most-consistent lineman while playing the physically demanding position and should be even better this fall. 

Left guard Malcolm Pridgeon was inconsistent at best as a run blocker before signing as an undrafted free agent with Houston last week and Michael Jordan was forced to play out of position at center. Give Jordan credit for selflessly agreeing to play the position but he's obviously a guard and while he was solid at center, I'm not sure I totally agree with his selection as a first-team (SI.com) and second-team All-American (Walter Camp). Jordan was the 10th offensive guard selected in the draft, going in Round 4 to the Bengals. 

At right guard, Demetrius Knox had his own consistency struggles before a season-ending injury pushed Wyatt Davis in the starting spot. Knox signed with Seattle as an undrafted free agent last week. 

Finally, at right tackle, Isaiah Prince was a first-team All-B1G performer and was surely a better run blocker than quarterback protector before the Dolphins made him the 18th offensive tackle taken in the Draft as a 6th round selection. 

In no way am I attempting to slam these dudes – the overwhelming majority of college football head coaches would've traded their offensive line straight up for Ohio State's – but where would you slot last year's group against the previous six versions in Columbus? 

This year, Munford and Davis are back at left tackle and right guard respectively but from there things are a bit murky. An educated guess slots Rutgers graduate transfer Jonah Jackson at left guard after the team captain started at right guard and earned honorable mention All-B1G honors a season ago. 

Josh Myers should be the first-year starter at center after the former five-star recruit turned in a solid spring and right tackle might be Nicholas Petit-Frere's job to lose after his own stellar spring. Veteran Brandon Bowen could make a bid at right tackle or serve as Ohio State's first man off the bench at any guard or tackle spot. 

Whether or not these guys prove to be road graders capable of opening up holes allowing Dobbins to reach the second-level with a head of steam remains to be seen but there's no doubt the junior will be hellbent on topping last year's production. 

How much new starting quarterback Justin Fields impacts the running game is also a bit of an unknown. That said, it's a safe guess that even with Meyer out of the mix, Fields' role in the running game will more closely resemble that of J.T. Barrett and Braxton Miller than it will Haskins or Cardale Jones. 

But regardless of who is carrying the football, whether or not the rushing attack gets back on track will depend more of the offensive line's development than any other factor. 

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