If you had polled the conference before this 2018 season began, Wisconsin sophomore Jonathan Taylor would probably be the near-unanimous pick as the best back in the Big Ten. But if the question had been "Which team has the best one-two punch at running back," you'd probably get a lot of Ohio State responses.
Between sophomore JK Dobbins and senior Mike Weber, the Buckeyes had the perfect version of fire and ice. Dobbins led the conference in yards per carry (7.2, among qualified players) and 20-yard runs (16) his freshman season while Weber added another 626 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 101 carries.
Ohio State's rushing attack has been weird (to say the least) through eight games this season and it's created a little window for another backfield duo to take the mantle as the top one-two punch. There's a strong argument to be made for Taylor and his backup in Wisconsin but that's more of a one-head attack with sprinkles of the backup when Taylor needs a blow.
Through eight games, the combination of senior Devine Ozigbo and freshman Maurice Washington has produced 1,261 yards of total offense. (Iowa's three guys don't equal Nebraska's two.) With 710 yards on the season, Ozigbo is well on his way toward that thing Nebraska hasn't had in a while. No other running back in the Big Ten has more rushing touchdowns than him, either.
And he's done it in, what, five games? Ozigbo entered the season a co-starter with JUCO back Greg Bell. In the opener against Colorado, he got 14 carries, which he turned into 60 yards. He then had nine carries (25 yards) against Troy, six carries (5 yards) against Michigan and five carries (29 yards) against Wisconsin.
When he's gotten the rock, he's produced big numbers. In games with at least 10 carries this season, Ozigbo has 651 yards and eight scores. He's hitting at an 8.6 yards-per-carry clip. That would be tops in the Big Ten. (Even his regular 7.4 ypc average over the entire season is still the fourth-best mark in the Big Ten and ninth-best nationally.)
Ziggy Stardust, as his coach affectionately calls him, has nearly 200 yards more than Dobbins on 34 fewer carries. He has more touchdowns than both Dobbins and Weber combined on 44 percent of their carries.
"I feel good," Ozigbo said Monday. "Honestly, I feel really good right now."
And in his last four games, Washington is starting to feel better and better. He had 80 all-purpose yards on nine touches against Wisconsin (27 rushing, 53 receiving), then 44 and his first collegiate rushing touchdown against Northwestern, then his first 100-yard rushing day with 109 and a score against Minnesota, then 48 and a score on six touches against Bethune-Cookman.
That's on top of the 92-yard outing the freshman had against Troy.
"Big-time progress, now he needs a year in the weight room," head coach Scott Frost said. "He’s really happy when he gets over 180 [pounds]. When he’s 205-210 next year, as quick as he is, he’s going to be really good. I know [strength coach] Zach [Duval] can’t wait to get ahold of him and get that work done.
"He’s just got a different level of speed, he’s tough to tackle, he can make guys miss in the hole and as he’s learned our offense he’s really turned into a threat for us in the passing game that we can use with matchups on people. He’s gotten a ton better this year. We could see the potential in him right away when he got here, and he’s gotten a lot better. I think the sky’s the limit for him.”
Frost hasn't been shy talking about Ozigbo, either. The senior is a step faster, Frost often says, after changing his body in the offseason. Ozigbo has become the closest thing Nebraska will get to a bell cow without actually being one; he has 20 carries in just one game this season. When the Huskers said one guy couldn't carry the load with how many snaps they ran, they meant it, but they also came in thinking there would be more of a rotation than what has become the norm.
Because of Bell, Nebraska had an overabundance of mouths to feed in the ground game. When's the right time for Miles Jones? What about Wyatt Mazour? Make sure Adrian Martinez gets his carries. What about JD Spielman and Tyjon Lindsey?
You never want to lose talent but there's that old saying, "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard." Bell's departure (and Lindsey's to some extent) allowed for a re-focusing. In the long run, it has probably worked out better than most expected.
"To be honest with you, I’m glad it went that way because those two guys, given their chance, have really shined and that has made us a better football team," Frost said. "I’m not sure if it had been a heavier position group with another guy or two in the mix as much as those two if those two would’ve developed the same way they have."
Most backs don't like rotation. Like with any position, you want to get into the flow of the game and you don't want to constantly be looking over your shoulder. Three was one too many, it seems. Two appears just right.
"That was something that kind of turned into a pretty big positive," Ozigbo said of the two-guy approach. "Being able to get a feel for the game was such a big thing, especially at back because you could go in there and get one carry and you don’t really know how it is. Even in this last game, it took a little to get going until the last play of the first drive. Being able to get more plays and to get a stronger feel for the game is definitely big.”
Ozigbo compliments Washington at media availability. Washington, in turn, talks about all the stuff he's learning from Ozigbo. This all seems to be working pretty smoothly right now. Nebraska has a top-20 ground attack in terms of efficiency (17th in yards per carry).
"Those two are a really good one-two punch right now," Frost said. "I think it’s benefited our team that it worked out the way it did."
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.