ANN ARBOR, Mich. – J.K. Dobbins bounced once on both feet in celebration before planting his cleats into the Michigan Stadium turf and running directly toward Cam McGrone, the Wolverines linebacker.
He had seen McGrone, wearing No. 44, drill Justin Fields out of bounds three plays earlier, committing a personal foul penalty. So instead of heading into the end zone to celebrate with K.J. Hill, who had just caught a 6-yard touchdown pass to give Ohio State a 35-16 lead early in the third quarter, Dobbins wanted to say something about the late hit. A visibly disappointed McGrone, walking back toward Michigan's bench, didn’t turn around as Dobbins stood just feet away, barking at the back of his helmet for a couple seconds before making his way back to the away sideline with a three-touchdown lead.
“I don't like seeing my guy get hit like that,” Dobbins said after the win. “So I was kind of upset about it.”
Dobbins’ reaction didn’t come as a total surprise. Really, it highlighted the qualities – feisty, aggressive, underdog, fearless, relentless – that have become accentuated the past couple months, fueling an ascent that has taken him from being one of the best running backs in the Big Ten to tying Archie Griffin as the second-ever three-time 1,000-yard rusher in Ohio State history and an outside Heisman Trophy candidate.
The past few months, Dobbins has begun to cement a legacy for himself among the best running backs in program history. And on Saturday in the final regular season game of the year, his run of success continued.
The junior, playing what’s likely his final collegiate season, carried the ball 31 times for 211 yards, a new career high, and scored a career-high four touchdowns on the ground in a 56-27 win against Michigan. He also caught two passes for 49 yards.
“He had a little different look in his eye today,” Ryan Day said. “He did. I know he was sick to his stomach about the fumble last week, and he wore that on his sleeve all week and practiced well. But he just had a look in his eye today that he was not going to be denied.”
Despite that look, Dobbins nearly got off to a poor start.
Reminiscent of what happened last week, with him losing a fumble and thus helping Penn State to pull within four points of the Buckeyes in the fourth quarter, he coughed up the ball on his first run of Saturday. However, he lucked out with it bouncing back into his hands, barely slowing him down as he shot past the second level of Michigan’s defense and sprinted down the field for a 34-yard gain.
“Someone hit my elbow and it moved my wrist and the ball came out,” Dobbins said.
With a smile, Robert Landers added: “He got a scoop and score. That's what happened.”
The score came soon enough.
Two plays after the 34-yarder, Dobbins picked up eight yards on the ground. The next play, he moved the chains with a 4-yard gain on 3rd-and-2. Three plays later, Justin Fields hit him for a 28-yard gain on 3rd-and-12. Dobbins scored a 5-yard touchdown on the following play.
In totality, the Buckeyes went 75 yards on nine plays, finishing in the end zone. Because of a four-yard loss from Fields on a sack, though, Dobbins accounted for 79 yards on the opening drive. It felt reminiscent of Ohio State going 91 yards on the ground in the opening drive seven days prior, and it just kept coming.
Later in the first quarter, he converted a third down. In the second quarter, he scored two touchdowns. In the third quarter, he had a 41-yard rush. In the fourth quarter, he had a third-down conversion and a 33-yard touchdown rush.
“It's great. Big rivalry game,” Dobbins said. “Without my O-line, I couldn't do it. I just want to keep going, keep getting better, because I could have had a better game.”
For the first time in his career, Dobbins exceeded 30 carries for two weeks in a row. Last week, he got handed the ball 36 times, and he racked up 31 rushes on Saturday. When asked about his workload, Dobbins said he expected that many carries. So, how was he feeling in the immediate aftermath?
“Great,” Dobbins said. “I didn't play like five halves (this season).”
He has a point.
Few, if any, running backs at Dobbins’ level have had so many extended periods to rest this fall. He didn’t play a single snap in the second half of victories against Cincinnati, Miami (Ohio), Maryland and Rutgers and didn’t carry the ball in the fourth quarter versus Indiana, Nebraska, Northwestern, leaving him fresh at the end of November.
Because of the naturally capped playing time, Dobbins’ climb in the Ohio State record books among program legends has been made even more impressive. On Saturday, he passed Ezekiel Elliott to become the second-leading rusher in program history, behind only Griffin, and crossed the 4,000-yard threshold. With 1,657 rushing yards this season, he’s within striking distance of Eddie George’s single-season rushing record of 1,927 yards.
“I'm not satisfied,” Dobbins said. “I'm not even close to being satisfied.”
“Because I just feel like there's so much more I can prove, you know, with my God-given talent,” Dobbins said. “I feel like a lot of people are overlooking it.”
Not anymore, they aren’t. Not after seeing him run for more than 1,600 yards in the first 12 games this season. But as long as Dobbins believe that gives him an edge, he’ll continue to see the doubters, and Ohio State certainly won’t stop him from doing so.