COLUMBUS — In the opening drive of Ohio State’s 28-17 win over Penn State on Saturday, the Buckeyes ran the ball on 12 of 13 snaps, and all 91 yards on the drive came via the ground. The drive ended in a touchdown for the Buckeyes, giving them a 7-0 lead.
Seemingly everyone was expecting to see Ohio State come out throwing the ball as that’s what Penn State’s defensive weakness was supposed to lead to, but it was the Ohio State run game that carried them throughout the game.
And the tone was set very early.
Penn State came into the game on Saturday as the No. 4 rush defense in the country and tops in the Big Ten, allowing an average of just 75.9 yards rushing per game. Their 2.2 yards per carry allowed were the best in the nation.
The Buckeyes finished the game with 229 yards on the ground on Saturday in a season-high 61 attempts.
Penn State’s defense held Ohio State well below their season average in both yards and yards per carry, but that never deterred Buckeye head coach Ryan Day from leaning on the ground game.
In the first half alone, Ohio State had 32 rushing attempts for 147 yards for an average of 4.6 yard per rush in comparison to its 14 passing attempts for 108 yards.
For comparison, the Buckeyes came into the matchup as the No. 2 run defense in the conference and No. 5 in the country just behind Penn State in both categories. At the half, Penn State had 11 yards rushing on 10 attempts for an average of 1.1 yards per carry. They finished the game with 99 yards rushing on 37 attempts for 2.7 yards per carry.
The Buckeyes were dominant in their ability to stop the run, and they in turn moved the ball on the ground more than well enough, and it was junior running back JK Dobbins yet again leading the way for Ohio State.
Dobbins finished the game with 157 yards and two touchdowns on a season-high 36 attempts.
With his performance on Saturday against Penn State, Dobbins also passed 1995 Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George for third place on Ohio State’s career rushing list with 3,902 career rushing yards, sitting just behind Ezekiel Elliott at 3,961.
“JK’s been a guy who has produced for us for three years so he’s been super consistent, and you know, I think he needed that,” sophomore center Josh Myers said of the workload on Saturday.
It was also clear that quarterback Justin Fields running the ball was a big part of Ohio State’s game plan to challenge Penn State’s run defense. Fields recorded a season-high 21 carries and finished with 68 yards. He actually rushed for 103 yards, but lost 28 yards due to sacks, and another five yards when he was tackled in the backfield on a run play late in the game.
“I thought that [Penn State] had a very good run defense,” Day said after the game. “And in order to get an extra number in there, you have to equate with the quarterback. And there was a good number of those that weren’t designed for him. The draw certainly was and there was a couple others.
“But for the most part you’re reading somebody. And their guy — typically the read was to pull the ball and that doesn’t necessarily always happen that way. But when you’re playing against really good defenses, that’s something you have to do. And I thought he made great decisions all day.”
Penn State head coach James Franklin credited Justin Fields’ ability to escape as a game changer.
“The biggest difference in the game was the quarterback’s legs in the running game,” Franklin said. “We were able to get them into third-and-long and he would take off and run. And in some fourth down situations as well.”
“He’s a dual-threat quarterback and I think we saw that all game,” defensive tackle PJ Mustipher echoed. “He was able to extend plays, get out of the pocket, and definitely get a lot of yards on his feet. We knew what type of quarterback he was coming in.”
Penn State understood what they were facing in Fields’ escapability, but that didn’t mean there was anything they could do about it.
“It’s definitely tough because we’ve got them where we want them on third-and-long and then he scrambles out of the pocket for 10, 12 yards or something like that. It’s tough,” Mustipher said. “You’ve got everybody on their heels, you’ve got the corners covering, and then they have to come up and make a play if he gets out of the pocket. So it’s definitely a challenge for all of us.”
Although sloppy at times because of three turnovers, it was the Ohio State run game that kept the Buckeyes ahead.
Fields and Dobbins gave Ohio State the edge they needed to take advantage of the Nittany Lions’ top run defense, and Day decided to ride them all the way to a Big Ten East title on Saturday.