In Ohio State-Michigan rivalry, running game paves way to victory

Joey Kaufman
Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, awarded to the nation’s top running back, a testament to the Buckeyes’ powerful run game. [Adam Cairns/Dispatch]

One of the moments that right guard Wyatt Davis relished from Ohio State’s win over Penn State last week came on the opening series.

It was a 13-play, 91-yard touchdown drive, with every yard gained on the ground.

“We just kept pounding and pounding,” Davis said, “and it was working out for us, and it also kind of sends a message to the defense like, ‘OK, these guys are coming out ready to play.’”

The Buckeyes finished with 61 rush attempts against the Nittany Lions, the most in five seasons. The approach might benefit them Saturday against Michigan. As much as passing-driven spread offenses have proliferated across college football, this game is settled more traditionally: in the trenches.

Since 2000, the winner in this series has been the team with the most rushing yards.

“We know from the past games, the most physical team is going to win this game,” Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said, “and when you think about physicality, offense and defense, it’s about running the football. And we won that battle the past few years.

“That’s going to be a big game plan this week, running the ball and being as physical as possible.”

The matchup seems to tilt toward the Buckeyes, who rank fourth in rushing offense in FBS and feature J.K. Dobbins, a finalist for the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s best running back.

By comparison, as much as Michigan’s offense has ascended during a four-game winning streak, the improvement is largely owed to its passing game and the development of quarterback Shea Patterson.

The Wolverines sit No. 76 in the nation in rushing offense. In three games, including their past two wins, they have been held to 3 yards or less per carry.

Not since 2011 have they reached their average rushing clip for a season in the game against Ohio State. The trend has coincided with Ohio State’s recent stretch of dominance in the rivalry, including 16 wins in the past 18 games, a run that extends to former coach Jim Tressel’s first season in 2001.

Though Michigan is lower in various statistical rushing categories, Werner observed that it remains likely to pose a physical threat. Its offense featured “big bodies” and “multiple-tight ends packages,” he said.

“They have the ability to run the ball right at you,” Werner said.

Ryan Day, the first-year coach of the Buckeyes, acknowledged the importance of running the ball against the Wolverines. Since he arrived as offensive co-coordinator in 2017, Day has been the play-caller in two victories as the Buckeyes have outgained Michigan by an average of 198.5 to 130.5 rushing yards.

“You can throw the ball, that's fine,” Day said. “When you can run the ball, you can control the clock, you control the game. I think that's why it's typically important.”

The ground game also wears on opponents late in the season.

Davis observed the effect last week on the opening drive against Penn State.

“Especially with how we go up-tempo and run the ball, it gets the D-line, it gets the whole defense out of place because guys start getting tired,” he said. “If you're able to keep on doing that and have those long-play drives, it puts a little pressure on the defense.

“So if we come out and do what we're supposed to do and dominate the running game, we definitely have a greater chance of getting the end goal that we want you.”


Ohio State at Michigan

When: Noon Saturday

TV: Fox (Ch. 28)

Radio: WBNS-FM/AM (97.1/1460)

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