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J.K. Dobbins recapturing magic ahead of return to site of splashy debut

J.K. Dobbins-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football
Ohio State tailback J.K. Dobbins is ramping up his production for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Ohio State Football

J.K. Dobbins recapturing magic ahead of return to site of splashy debut

COLUMBUS — Last week Justin Fields had an up-close view of one of the more selfless acts by an Ohio State player this season.

As Fields tucked the ball to run around left end on a lead play, the lead player – the man charged with making the key block – was running back J.K. Dobbins. And Dobbins delivered, wiping out the only Cincinnati defender with a true chance of stopping what turned out to be a four-yard touchdown run in the 42-0 win.

The cynics will say so what? That was Dobbins’ job on the play. But the realists will counter: Not every running back attacks the task of blocking with the same zeal. Just because Ezekiel Elliott set the Ohio State standard back in 2013-15 by throwing blocks like Barry Bonds hit home runs doesn’t mean every man who comes along will share the same ethic.

When one does, though, it’s as noteworthy as the 60-yard touchdown run Dobbins also had in that win over the Bearcats. On the block, actually, Dobbins called his shot in Babe Ruth fashion.

“He told me before that play he has me, so just follow him,” Fields said. “I trusted him that he’d throw a great block on that play, and that’s pretty much what let us score.

“I definitely can trust J.K., and I think he’s one of the best blockers in terms of being a running back in the country.”

J.K. Dobbins-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State tailback J.K. Dobbins looked like his old self last week for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

Now they’re taking their act to Indiana for the noon start Saturday of the Big Ten opener for the No. 6 Buckeyes, the two-time defending league champions. What that act entails is a return to another bonafide dual-threat quarterback in Fields and a running back in Dobbins who seems to have re-gathered the parts of his game which he sprang on the Hoosiers as a freshman making his first start two years ago in the season opener at Indiana.

“In the first game I think he missed a block or something, so he was pretty upset about that because it usually doesn’t happen,” Fields said, referring to Dobbins’ efforts in the season opening win over Florida Atlantic. “But this game he was definitely more settled, definitely more confident.

“So I think the more confident he gets, the better he’ll play.”

First impressions are lasting, though, and the way Dobbins hit the ground running at Indiana two years ago — including the college debut of his signature jump cut in the hole — set the bar for what most Ohio State observers thought would be a regular display by the celebrated back from La Grange, Texas. He has had some big games since then, and with 1,403 yards rushing in 2017 and 1,053 last year he became the first Buckeyes back in history to top 1,000 his first two seasons on campus.

Yet he called his 2018 “a failure” overall, because in a competition for playing time then with Mike Weber, he pressed too much for the big play rather than take what was there from one snap to the next. In the opener against Florida Atlantic two weeks ago, he again appeared to be pressing.

Justin Fields-Ohio State-Buckeyes-Ohio State football

Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields has been an effective rusher alongside J.K. Dobbins for the Buckeyes. (Birm/Lettermen Row)

But last week against what was supposed to be a stouter Cincinnati defense, Dobbins seemed more patient, and his play showed it — 141 yards on 17 carries, and don’t forget about that block on the Fields touchdown or his pass protection pickup block against a Bearcats defensive end.

“I thought J.K. ran hard,” Ohio State coach Ryan Day said. “It wasn’t clean the first week, I thought it was a little bit better [against Cincinnati]. The blocking schemes had something to do with that as well. But he was running with his pads down, he was running hard, he was running physical.

“I thought he had two or three excellent blocks as well. One it was a defensive end [who had looped into the middle] and he stoned him at the line of scrimmage. Really impressive. Then on Justin Fields’ run, he comes and cuts that linebacker.”

The challenge this week is for the junior captain to duplicate that effort or perhaps take it up a notch in the same place where he set his own standard two years ago. Day and others saw the capability last week.

“When he comes and plays at that level, he’s one of the better running backs in the country,” Day said.

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Tim May

Tim May brings decades of experience to his work on the Ohio State beat. The award-winning journalist retired from his post at the Columbus Dispatch after the 2018 season but remains a fixture around the Buckeyes and continues to loom as an authority on the program.