The Incredible Disappearing Running Backs

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, step right up! Prepare to be amazed! Before you is one of the nation’s most unique talents, a man with a blend of speed, power, and elusiveness rarely seen before! Marvel as he makes defenders miss, turns nothing into something, and something into everything! 

Ladies and gentlemen, what if I told you that by saying a few magic words, I can make this college football marvel… DISAPPEAR!

(There is a puff of smoke. As it dissipates, revealing an empty stage, the opening notes of “The Final Countdown” begin to play.)

Saturday afternoon in Iowa City, the Buckeye coaching staff pulled off this very trick… sorry… illusion, much to the delight of the thousands of Iowa fans. It wasn’t nearly as thrilling for those in attendance wearing scarlet and gray, who had already seen this show a lot recently.

In the first quarter, with the Buckeyes down 10-7, freshman RB J.K. Dobbins ran the ball four times on one drive. He picked up 7, 2, 35, and 3 yards on those carries. After the last carry set up 2nd-and-7 at the Iowa 10, the Buckeyes threw two incomplete passes and settled for a field goal.

On the Buckeyes’ first possession of the second quarter, Dobbins’ backfield partner Mike Weber carried the ball on four consecutive plays. He gained 8, 2, 9, and 3 yards, and that rushing threat set up a deep touchdown pass to Johnnie Dixon that re-tied the game at 17.

J.K. Dobbins carries the ball against Iowa. (Dan Harker/TheOzone)

At that point, with more than 10 minutes left in the second quarter, the Buckeye backs had combined for 8 carries and 69 yards. The offense put up 17 points in less than 20 minutes of game action.

After that? POOF! Weber had one more carry for 5 yards, fumbled, and never took another hand-off. Dobbins rushed once for no gain in the second quarter and had a 4-yard carry on the first offensive play of the third quarter. Total: 3 carries for 9 yards in more than 40 minutes of play. Total points scored: 7.

Monday, OSU head coach Urban Meyer said that running backs coach Tony Alford is in charge of dividing up playing time for his unit.

“We have a conversation about it,” said Meyer. “Mike’s playing hard. I think J.K. is our starter, had a couple of nice runs. Those are things we talk about. But once again I think coach Alford does a nice job. (Dobbins) should have more than six carries, but we got behind and started throwing it a lot.”

The Buckeyes were within two touchdowns of Iowa until late in the third quarter, meaning that 10 minutes of the second quarter and 12 minutes of the third – more than a third of a game – elapsed between the “POOF” and the Buckeyes falling seriously behind.

Excluding a kneel-down before the half, the OSU drives in that span: 7 plays, 3 yards, PUNT; 4 plays, 18 yards, INTERCEPTION/ 3 plays, 6 yards, PUNT; 3 plays, 7 yards, PUNT. In those 17 plays, the backs got three carries. Barrett had six, including one wiped out by a penalty, but excluding a sack.

After a follow-up question, Meyer again deferred to Alford and pointed to the deficit as a reason Dobbins didn’t get the ball more.

“I think you have two quality tailbacks. I think that J.K.’s going to be a 1,000-yard rusher here pretty soon,” said Meyer. “Just the way the game materialized in that third quarter, there wasn’t a whole lot of runs after that point. But those are certainly conversations. J.K. deserves the ball.”

The return of the Incredible Disappearing Running Backs ended the same way it did against Oklahoma in September, Clemson in the Fiesta Bowl, at Penn State in 2016, against Michigan State in 2015… let’s just say that the show has been a fixture in Columbus for six years now.

That time period has spanned the Tom Herman, Ed Warinner/Tim Beck, and now Kevin Wilson eras at offensive coordinator. There is really only one constant.

Meyer rose to prominence on the back of a power spread offense. He turned Bowling Green into a winner, completed an unbeaten season at Utah, and won two national titles at Florida.

The offense works by spreading out the defense from sideline to sideline, then manipulating them with motion and reads to create numerical advantages they can exploit.

One key component of that is the read option, where the offense leaves one defender unblocked and the quarterback determines whether that defender is going after the running back or the quarterback. If he’s not going after the running back, the QB hands the ball off. If he is going after the RB, the quarterback pulls the ball and takes off running.

It’s relatively simple and can be brutally effective, especially when it’s run by a quarterback with breakaway speed like Braxton Miller.

The problem is, defensive coordinators know this too, and they know that they would rather see J.T. Barrett carrying the ball than J.K. Dobbins. Barrett is an effective runner. He had 14 carries for 63 yards against Iowa, including a long run of 18. But Barrett is not Dobbins. Barrett averaged 4.5 yards per carry, Dobbins picked up 8.5.

On the season, Barrett nets an average of 5.1 yards per rush, but Dobbins gets 7.7. Sack yardage hurts Barrett’s numbers a bit, but not nearly enough to make up the difference.

When defenses see the Buckeyes run the read option, or similar plays such as the speed option, they know they need to go after Dobbins. Barrett can hurt them, but Dobbins can kill them. That’s not a tough call.

The magic of the read option is that it forces the defense to make a choice, and thus leave one person uncovered. The downside is that it also gives the defense a unique ability to control who does – and doesn’t – get the ball for Ohio State.

While it’s certainly not all a function of the read option, the numbers remain clear, and the backs simply aren’t getting the ball. Dobbins had 29 carries in the season opener at Indiana and hasn’t had even half that number in any game since. Weber had 18 carries at Nebraska, but hasn’t topped 13 any other time.

Saturday, the Buckeyes will take the stage again, to face a Michigan State team well-versed in defending the OSU attack. The 2015 meeting featured star RB Ezekiel Elliott getting just 12 carries compared to 15 for Barrett on a cold, windy evening that ended in a 17-14 Spartan win that crushed OSU’s national title hopes. Last year, Barrett carried it 24 times, compared to a total of 18 for Weber and Curtis Samuel, as the Buckeyes survived a 17-16 nail-biter against a team that ended the year 3-9, and foreshadowed the offense’s collapse against Clemson.

The end of a magic trick, the moment of the big reveal, is called “the prestige.” The latest Incredible Disappearing Running Backs show revealed the Buckeyes’ national title hopes as an illusion. If the act returns Saturday at the Horseshoe, it could do some serious and long-lasting damage to the program’s prestige as well.

21 Responses

  1. That we even opened with the pass play that was called was risky and very stupid at its worse. The pass play should have been a deep ball or a sideline throw to start the game. However, when on the road, OSU needs to put it on the back of the OL to take control early and feed the ball to JK. I am not a coach, but I saw this plain as day…SMH

  2. Spot on article. It seems as though Meyer still thinks he has a fullback, Tebow, playing QB. Having grown up on Woody Hayes smash mouth football and his self definition of “power spread”, you would think Urb would embrace the stud RB’s he has had in Columbus. He never had a 1000yd rusher until he arrived in Cbus. Does he not know what to do with one? IMHO Meyer loves the QB position above all others and orchestrates his offense to highlight that position.

  3. It has been said in this thread but hopefully to build on this point – it goes back further than 2015. Carlos had to beg for the ball only to average 8 yards a carry. In the spirit of the spread pehaps the QB should line up under center occasionally. Opponents have figured it out.

    1. Feed Carlos, feed Zeke, feed Weber, feed Dobbins. Definite pattern here. On the bright side: If you are a stud high school running back sign up with O State. You will get national exposure, plenty of interaction with NFL scouts, you will not get run to death by Slick Nick and you have plenty of gas left in the tank for your pro career.

  4. THIS remains the number one head-scratcher for me…and number two is not even close.

  5. THIS disappearing act remains the number one head-scratcher for me…and number two is not even close.

  6. I sure hope the Buckeye coaches read this article. I have never been a football coach, but these numbers seem very convincing.

  7. Frustrating that we opened the game throwing, too. I thought, hostile crowd, run the ball a LOT to quiet things down.
    Hopefully, like Zeke’s carries after Michigan State game, Dobbins and Weber will get their carries here on out. We need to run the ball. And I don’t mean JT Barrett. We played the last two quarters like we were leading by 30.

  8. Can our running backs block, sorry, I don’t know. If so , you got to get a lot of guys in the box to stop two running backs and a QB who can all run. Can our OL power zone block, I’m thinking yes. You got tight ends dragging, receivers clearing going out and to the posts. Shit, change something!!! It isn’t working against anybody good.. The weakest part of this team this year and last year is the damn coaching staff. And that large dollar is on Urbans desk.
    \Put up or STFU.

    1. Straight up wing T football. Or even pistol wing-T.. Coach Meyers base formation is ground floor based on the wing T and inverted veer option. The difference is that he splits the second back into a H position, with motion to give his QB something to read.

      This past week the Buckeye offensive line got their asses kicked because they were constantly have to drop into pass pro. Ferentz and Iowa knew exactly what plays he was running and he just let his defense go kick the snot out of the Buckeye offensive line. They didn’t buy that JT Barrett had actually turned the corner in the deep passing game. There were 2 passes in the first half that “could” have forced Iowa to adjust but Barrett returned to weak arm throws. Ferentz was banking on that and history was on his side.

      The Buckeyes were definitely outplayed, but, they were SEVERELY out coached.

  9. Yep- amazing so many people have whistled in the dark concerning this glaring issue, for so many years. Its a n illness, it really is- a personality illness of the head coach. The “blame Tony Alford” stuff is a joke, he should leave OSU and go somewhere the head coach isn’t driving knives into his backside. Meyer is a joke.

  10. Great article, provides the numbers and statistics to support what all of us are seeing and questioning.

  11. This statement is a support of the conclusions drawn from that he is very capable while om. Dobbins has shown all season long that he is very capable while Weber has fought back from some early season injuries that limited him but both of these guys can make this offense multi-dimensional. JT has shown outstanding patience to a fault standing in there to go down field with the pass and on occasion throwing off to the sidelines which netted very little yardage for the Buckeyes. One continuing problem in the Iowa game was his insistence of standing in the pocket only to have the ball batted back in his face or sent wobbling toward the intended receiver or worst yet, intercepted. As to the running game, a trial run at having both ball carriers in the same backfield at the same time needs further consideration. The Buckeyes aren’t out of it yet and having the three games that get them to Indianapolis is not beyond reason.

  12. Meyer takes ZERO accountability, and then acts shocked at such stats in his post-game conference as if he’s just a spectator in the stadium. It’s not Alford and it’s not Kevin Wilson. Zeke had 5 carries against MSU in 2015 in their loss. It’s the same story.

  13. Yes, well done Tom! I was very glad to see Urban come to the Buckeyes, i believe he is one of the top coaches in college football if not the best. But that being said, i believe he should over ride some of the play calling , that is not micro managing, that is just being a good head coach. One thing that chills me to the bone is every time the offense goes empty back field. There are only two options and most of the opponents defenses know them both, its either a pass or quarterback draw. If you leave a tailback in, there are a lot more options the defense has to account for, not to mention an extra blocker.

    1. Hi Tom- that’s the problem, Meyer IS behind the play calling!! He’s the only coaching constant in the entire equation- RB coaches change, QB coaches, change, Offensive Coordinators change- but not Meyer. The notion that this guy isn’t driving his offensive desires down everyone’s throats is just absurd. He’s going into “better you than me” mode in throwing others under the bus. When Tressel was the coach, at least he had the good sense to stay away from the defense because he realized those defenses were the key to his team’s successes for the majority of the seasons. Meyer won’t do that, he’s forcing his outdated, tired thoughts on the other offensive coaches and tossing them to the lions when it goes bad. Love the team, NOT the coach.

    2. I say the same thing every time it happens.

  14. There are other ways to run the ball besides the read option. Defenses have morphed and caught up to the spread and the read option. Time to reshape the offense, make adjustments and add some variety. Coach Meyer is bumping up against the limits of his system. His true greatness as a coach will be determined right here. I hope he passes the test.

    1. Yes very well done, The BTN channel was talking about this same thing. MSU stuffed OSU in 2015 because we had a non existent pass game, EE could of rushed 50 times that game and wouldn’t have sniffed a century in yards. Remember, we only scored those points due to a QB sack with a fumble deep in Sparty territory and a horrendous Punt return mistake by MSU that basically gifted us 7 pts.. The IA game was a perfect storm of mistakes, injuries, foolish penalties, and coaches who forced an off QB on that day to carry the game on his arm and refused to make adjustments. Feeding Weber and JTB could of opened up a passing game that seemed earlier in the game to find way open receivers.

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