The Ohio State defense has given up just one 100-yard rushing game to an opposing running back this season, and that came on the road at Iowa, where Akrum Wadley carried the ball 20 times for 118 yards in a 55-24 win over the Buckeyes.
The Ohio State defense faced seven of the top 10 rushers in the Big Ten, and only once — Wadley — did they allow a running back to even approach his average yardage per game.
The two most famous cases of the OSU defense shutting down talented runners came against the two First-Team All-Big Ten running backs this year. Saquon Barkley was held to 44 yards rushing on 21 carries (50 yards below average), and Taylor just 41 yards on 15 carries (101 yards below average). Both players were rendered ineffective.
Now, against USC, the Ohio State defense has arguably its biggest test of the season in Trojans running back Ronald Jones.
Jones is a First-Team All-Pac 12 selection and the No. 9 rusher in the nation. He averages 123.8 yards on the ground per game, and has rushed for 1,486 yards and 18 touchdowns this year.
He’s more than just a batch of statistics, however.
“He can move. He can cut, he can stop on a dime,” Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker said. “He’s actually lowered his shoulder a few times to get a few extra yards. It’s definitely going to be fun. I’ve never played a school like USC, so I’m definitely excited.”
Jones has rushed for at least 122 yards in each of the last five games — all wins by USC. The Trojans are 8-1 when Jones rushes for 100 yards, so you know what they’ll be trying to do on Friday.
Jones will be a key to USC’s game plan, in both the running game and the passing game. The Buckeyes have seen this kind of attack before. Sometimes it goes well for OSU and sometimes it doesn’t. Defensive coordinator Greg Schiano knows what’s coming, at least in terms of talent.
“I think [Jones] is phenomenal, not just fast, strong. Has an incredible feel right before he gets tackled. Not a lot of kids that you see in college football do this,” he said.
“He kind of takes what you call a raised step right before he gets hit and really delivers a blow, as opposed to a guy just continuing to run. That is something that I don’t know if it’s coached or not. You don’t see a lot of guys that are able to do that. I think that’s kind of a gift. And if you make a mistake, in one thing, he’s gone. I don’t know what his — I read somewhere he’s a 10.3 100-meter guy. But, wow, you make one mistake he’s going to split you.”
Everything that Schiano just said is all part of USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin’s mental list of why Jones needs the football. He is capable of doing damage from any angle on any snap. The best players need the football in the biggest games, and this is the biggest game remaining for the Trojans, so expect Jones to be heavily involved in their plan of attack.
And for good reason.
“Games where he’s rushed for over 100 yards we’re basically undefeated,” Martin said. “And we have to have balance, whether it’s Ronald [Jones] or Stephen Carr back healthy. All four of our backs are healthy. This is the first time in a long time I’ve been able to say that all four of them are ready to go. But Ronald is just different. You have great players. You have great running backs. And then you have backs that are just ‘different,’ and I don’t know if, number one, I have coached one like him. I don’t know if in my career I’ll have another one like him.
“But he’s real with the things he can do. If one guy misses a gap, you’re not going to catch him. He can outrun your backers and your secondary. He’s physical in protection, does a great job of protecting our quarterback. And the one part of our game I think he’s developed is his ability to catch the ball in the backfield. Hasn’t had a drop all season. That’s one area we challenged him in the offseason to get better at, and he’s taken it upon himself to make it something he’s really good at. Got to have him on the field and make him a big part of this game.”
Ronald Jones will be a concern for the Buckeyes every single second. The good news for Ohio State, however, is that when they have focused on containing the best running backs they have faced this season, they have succeeded.
Jones is now the latest test — but he also may be the best.