Ryan Day got exactly what he wanted on Saturday.
When he landed Justin Fields as a transfer from Georgia in January, even though he didn’t publicly say so in order to force his newly acquired quarterback to win the starting job, he undoubtedly had visions of pairing him with J.K. Dobbins this season. Together, they have to potential to give Ohio State one of the best quarterback-running back combinations in the country.
In the Buckeyes’ season-opening 45-21 win against Florida Atlantic, Fields played an effective brand of football even if it lacked the pizzazz he was sometimes known for in high school with his speed and arm strength, and Dobbins struggled to get into a groove, averaging 4.3 yards per carry. At the time, it appeared they might need awhile to reach their ceiling as a duo.
Then came Ohio State’s 42-0 blowout of Cincinnati.
Fields played the best game of his young career, completing 20-of-25 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns and also rushing nine times for 42 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Dobbins put together the type of game he talked all offseason about, with 17 carries for 141 yards and two touchdowns.
Together, they flashed what Day thought he was getting by adding Fields and pairing him with Dobbins. No, the pair hasn’t arrived at their ceiling. But they got closer on Saturday, and anybody watching could see the signs of what they can become together.
“I felt really comfortable before the game. So just really that confidence from last week that I gained. I felt like it was a big help in today's game.”– Justin Fields
In particular, Dobbins needed a strong performance, and he delivered.
As fall camp began, Dobbins referred to his 2018 season as a “failure,” railing against his sophomore year performance on multiple occasions. It didn’t, he said, live up to the expectations he set as a freshman when he averaged 7.2 yards per carry. In the season opener, Dobbins again had a lackluster game, averaging just 4.3 yards per rush. Day said Dobbins felt “irritated” the entire week leading up to Saturday.
“I didn't feel good about last week, but that's last week,” Dobbins said.
This week was different.
Dobbins took five of his 17 carries for at least eight yards, including a 60-yard touchdown set up by blocks from Thayer Munford and Jonah Jackson. He ran with force, bouncing off would-be tacklers more frequently than he did as against Florida Atlantic a week ago.
Always hard on himself, Dobbins said he played “OK.” But whatever “OK” is for Dobbins, it was enough for the Buckeyes.
“J.K., when he got to the second level he was rolling today,” Ryan Day said after the game. “I thought it was great getting J.K. going, and the O-line did an unbelievable job.”
It helped, surely, that the offensive line absolutely handled Cincinnati’s overmatched defensive line.
As Day mentioned after the game, Luke Fickell and Marcus Freeman threw as much as they could at Ohio State’s line, which features four new starters, frequently blitzing and trying to keep Dobbins and Fields from finding any sort of rhythm. As the 42 points on the scoreboard indicate, the pressure didn’t do much to phase Ohio State as the game wore on.
“(Greg Studrawa) and the O-line did a great job,” Day said. “I'm not sure if it was one snap, they didn't blink. They were blitzing from sideways, every which way. The guys were covering it up. They hit us on a couple early on, but then we started to cover them up.”
Dobbins, too, has confidence in the line, which he said is “playing at a high level right now.”
“Them boys good,” Dobbins said. “That's all I've got to say.”
Fields took advantage of the stout line play as well and played almost flawlessly to begin the game, completing 16 of his first 18 passes, with the two incompletions coming on a throwaway and a dropped pass.
He connected with Garrett Wilson on a 9-yard touchdown that Day called “NFL material” and a five-yard touchdown pass to K.J. Hill for the final points of the afternoon.
“I felt really comfortable before the game,” Fields said. “So just really that confidence from last week that I gained. I felt like it was a big help in today's game.”
Unlike in the first game of the season, in which he had an early 51-yard rushing touchdown, Fields maxed out with a 12-yard rush on Saturday. His ability to scamper when pressured was visible, though, which Day also noted.
One of his rushing touchdowns came on a designed run to the outside. Dobbins told his quarterback to follow him. Fields, abiding, trotted into the end zone behind Dobbins, who toppled a defender.
Fields’ other rushing touchdown certainly wasn’t planned. Near the goal line on the second drive, Fields dropped back with eight-man protection and didn’t see anybody open. Without hesitation, he tucked the ball down, found a hole straight ahead and fell into the end zone as a Cincinnati defensive player drilled him.
“His ability to do that for us is kind of the X-factor because if it's there, we take it and we're pretty efficient throwing with the ball, which is good,” Day said. “We've got a long way to go. We're getting there. But then his feet are the X-factor. If we can keep us on schedule, we don't need to scramble for eight yards, but if he can turn a 1st-and-10 shot into 2nd-and-6 that keeps us on schedule. And the only time we really got ourselves off schedule was the holding call in the first drive. We were rolling.”
So early in the season, both players and coaches have tried to keep expectations in check. Dobbins didn’t call his game anything special, and Day said Fields had a “solid performance,” calling it “another step in his progression.”
But all three of them – Day, Fields and Dobbins – know what this offense can develop into if Fields and Dobbins play at the level both of them believe they can reach. Fields said the Buckeyes can be “as good as we want to be.” He and Dobbins offered a glimpse of that on Saturday.