That Ohio State beat Michigan State on Saturday wasn’t too shocking. They were double-digit Vegas favorites, and, as my colleague Alex Kirshner pointed out earlier in the week, they’re loaded with elite talent, were playing at home, and matched up well with Michigan State.
But how Ohio State won is notable. Against the conference opponent that had vexed Urban Meyer more than any other, the Buckeyes cruised to a 48-3 victory. After six close games in a row in the series, Ohio State beat Michigan State by their largest margin, ever.
How did Ohio State do it? By doing what Ohio State has historically done best: run the dang ball. The Buckeyes ran 42 times to 23 throws, with four rushing touchdowns to two through the air.
This has actually been a problem for the Buckeyes.
Ohio State’s play calling has flummoxed Buckeye fans this season, as Ohio State has had a tendency to forget about its excellent running backs, Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins, when adversity hits. Dobbins, who has now run for over 1,000 yards this season as a true freshman, had just six carries against Iowa. He had only 13 against Oklahoma. Weber had only three against the Sooners and just five against Iowa.
It’s been a narrative for the Buckeyes since at least 2015, when a loss to these Spartans had Ezekiel Elliott calling out his coaching staff because of his lack of carries.
This season, the Buckeyes have tried harder to establish their passing game or rely on J.T. Barrett in the run game. Barrett had at least as many carries as his top two running backs, combined, in 2017 losses to Clemson, Oklahoma, and Iowa.
Part of that is by design. Meyer has often talked about his desire for “balance” in this offense, shooting for 250 passing and 250 rushing yards in a game. Barrett, while an exceptional short yardage runner and decision-maker out of the read option, isn’t the athletic threat on the ground that Weber or Dobbins is, or Curtis Samuel or Elliott were before them.
The Buckeyes didn’t forget about their running backs against Michigan State, and it worked perfectly.
Michigan State, on paper, shouldn’t have been the easiest team to just pound into submission on the ground. The Spartans were ninth in total defensive S&P+ headed into the game, sixth in rushing S&P+ defense, and third in rushing IsoPPP (preventing explosiveness). This was a unit build to limit big runs.
But Meyer went to his running backs early and often (he said there was a “mandate” to do so, in his presser), and they didn’t disappoint. Dobbins had 18 carries, his most since the season opener against Indiana, and went for 124 yards. Barrett was his usual efficient self, grabbing 55 yards and two TDs on nine carries. And Weber ran for 184 yards on just nine carries, boosted by this back-breaking run.
That particular touchdown run was interesting on a number of levels. For one, it speaks to increased creativity in Ohio State’s playcalling. Meyer noted that the Buckeyes hadn’t run a draw all season.
But it also speaks to the improved health and development of Weber, who ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman last season, but started slow this year due to a hamstring injury. Said Meyer:
He's a much, much better player than he was a year ago. He was a good player a year ago, and that darn injury — that hamstring was darn near surgical, where that would have been the season. He rehabbed it, rehabbed it. And a lot of credit to Mike to hang in there, just keep going, keep going, keep going. And the two of them today, you talk about the 1-2 punch, that was outstanding.
You don’t need balance if you can do one thing really, really well
Power football is part of Ohio State’s identity, from Woody Hayes to Jim Tressel, even though how the Buckeyes do it has taken on a few different forms. It’s been integral to Ohio State’s success under Meyer as well.
That approach fits Ohio State’s personnel very well. They have a big, mean, and experienced line, one that just dominated Michigan State’s front. They have a slew of young wideouts who are solid blockers on the perimeter. They have a smart, experienced quarterback who isn’t built to throw the ball 35 times a game, and two excellent running backs whose strengths compliment each other. Dobbins has a filthy jump cut and accelerates well, while Weber is a strong, between-the-tackles runner. Both are also capable receiving threats out of the backfield.
And focusing on running the ball doesn’t mean that downfield threats don’t exist. After all, the Buckeyes opened the second half with this bomb off a play action.
With what just happened to Michigan State, we saw first hand what happens when you shake off hubris, stop being complacent, and actually evaluate the problems to the gameplan. That’s not saying RB coach Tony Alford, offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson and the rest of the offensive coaching staff aren’t good at their job. I would wager that they are top-tier coaches in the respective area of expertise. But there will come a point in time when you’re going to have to stop ignoring the problem, and become proactive rather than reactive.
That’s a life point, too: don’t wait until the problem happens before you start looking for a solution. Try searching for a solution before the problems even begin to show up.
Iowa beating Ohio State showed a problem on offense. By the time Michigan State rolled into C-Bus, the problem had a solution—and it appears that solution worked well.
Ohio State is a playoff longshot, but still has a chance at a successful season.
With the win, Ohio State is the heavy favorite to win the Big Ten East and head to the conference championship against Wisconsin. If they can run the ball this well against a defense like Michigan State, they’re capable of making Michigan and Wisconsin uncomfortable, and the Buckeyes might very well knock the Badgers out of the playoff race. The Buckeyes still have a remote chance, despite two ugly losses, but with an outright Big Ten title and some national chaos, hey, you never know.
Even if the Buckeyes fail to make the playoff, they might have found a better blueprint towards offensive consistency against good teams.