COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Coach Urban Meyer has long said that any successful offense starts with a rugged offensive line. And it was the big guys up front who absorbed much of the blame last year when the Buckeyes’ attack sputtered at times.
With improvement in the passing game and running backs playing more significant roles this season, Ohio State’s O-line is getting its props. And that has generated confidence as the No. 8 Buckeyes (10-2, 8-1 Big Ten, CFP No. 8) prepare to face No. 3 Wisconsin (12-0, 9-0 Big Ten, CFP No. 5) and its stout defensive line on Saturday in the Big Ten Championship game. The Badgers’ three-man front anchors the best defense in the nation .
Last season, Ohio State took the field with three new starters on the offensive line. Freshman left guard Michael Jordan often was overwhelmed, and right tackle Isaiah Prince struggled in pass protection.
But a year has made a huge difference.
Jamarco Jones, also a first-year starter in 2016, and Prince have been standouts at the tackle spots. Meyer said the line has been the team’s most improved unit this season, even with backup Demetrius Knox taking over for injured starting right guard Branden Bowen.
Prince was credited with six knockdowns against Michigan and was named one of the Buckeyes players of the game.
“We were blessed for three or four years having the best (offensive line) in the Big Ten, then we didn’t and it was hard,” Meyer said. “Right now, they are one of the strengths of our team.”
A play with less than two minutes left and Ohio State clinging to a 24-20 lead over Michigan Saturday showed how the offensive line can impose its will.
On first down from the Michigan 25, Ohio State center Billy Price blasted out left and displaced Wolverines defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. Knox and Prince double-teamed another lineman, forcing him back into a safety, while tight end Marcus Baugh boxed out his man.
That allowed tailback Mike Weber to bounce right and outrun the rest of the defense for a touchdown that sealed the game for Ohio State.
The Buckeyes running game — behind Weber and true freshman J.K. Dobbins — is 13th in the nation, averaging 250.3 yards per game.
“Being able to roll off the ball and establish a new line of scrimmage, driving defensive linemen into the linebackers, that sort of thing — that is what has happened throughout the year,” said Price, who moved over from guard to center before the season after All-American Pat Elflein graduated.
Wisconsin’s defensive line is laden with experience, including senior ends Conor Sheehy, Chikwe Obasih and Alec James. Olive Sagapolu is a three-year starter at nose tackle in the 3-4 scheme.
Sheehy and James have extra motivation since both were injured and missed last year’s Big Ten Championship Game loss to Penn State.
This year the group has helped limit opponents to 2.7 yards per carry rushing and just four touchdowns on the ground. Opponents are gaining an average of 236.9 total yards per game, the fewest in the nation.
“No question, they’ve been a huge part of it,” Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst said. “You’re talking about guys that are great examples, great leaders, care about this team, care about this program, and it’s fun to see their development and their growth.”
Linebacker Garrett Dooley said the defensive linemen often are unsung because their value isn’t reflected in the stat sheets.
“Those guys don’t get enough credit,” Dooley said. “They eat up a lot of blocks for the linebackers, for the safeties, whomever, and whenever they get their opportunities to go make a play, they do it. We love those guys up front.”
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