LINCOLN — Even Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, usually a fount of optimism and confidence, doubted his Buckeye offense could pull it off. Specifically the guys up front.
Four minutes and 10 seconds remained in his team's 17-16 win over Michigan State last week, and OSU had to get three first downs against the Big Ten's top run defense to salt the clock.
“I thought we were going to have to punt that ball,” Meyer said Monday. “That's not to disrespect our players, but I know the way the game goes. And everybody watching that ballgame knew we were going to run the ball.”
Quarterback Braxton Miller carried the ball four times. Running back Carlos Hyde got it three times, including a tough 5-yard run on third-and-4 that picked up that final first down — and a big road win for Ohio State.
It was an even bigger win for the Buckeye offensive line, a group Meyer collectively named his players of the week. OSU ground out 204 rushing yards against the Spartans, who had been allowing 69 yards per game. Because of Ohio State's production, Michigan State now has the No. 2 run defense in the league behind Northwestern.
“It's great to have an offensive line grade out as your player of the game,” Meyer said. “You usually win that ballgame.”
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Said junior center Cory Linsley after the game: “Offensive linemen don't show up on the stat sheet. So when you can do something like that, everyone knows it was on the O-line. And we responded and we reacted. We won the game.”
The Buckeye line lacks the year-in-year-out pedigree of Wisconsin. It lacks the annual scrutiny Nebraska's Pipeline gets from its media corps. But, outside of Miller's dual-threat talents, the starters — Meyer said OSU has only five dependable linemen — are the story of the team. It's an improving unit into which offensive line coach Ed Warinner has had to plug different pieces to make the puzzle fit.
“It's a process that's happening maybe a little quicker than we thought,” Warinner said.
After previously playing tackle and guard, Linsley moved to center and took over for 49-game starter Mike Brewster, who graduated. Jack Mewhort moved from guard to left tackle when Mike Adams got drafted in the NFL. Most of the Buckeye linemen had to drop weight, or at least reshape their physique, to switch to a no-huddle spread offense that emphasizes athleticism over pro-style heft.
Reid Fragel, the starting right tackle, had to do just the opposite. He played tight end until last spring. He gained 30 pounds in the summer before his senior year to make his shift. He beat out true freshman Taylor Decker for the job.
“Who are we kidding?” Meyer said of Fragel. “He was a tight end, trying to figure it out. His last two games he's now an Ohio State offensive lineman. When you say that around here, that's powerful stuff.”
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Warinner, who served as Kansas' offensive coordinator from 2007 to '09 before coaching Notre Dame's offensive line in 2010 and 2011, was one of Meyer's splashy hires for a big-name coaching staff. He's had to retool the unit that Meyer told OSU beat reporters was “nonfunctional” in the spring.
The challenge: getting the guys more mobile, but keeping them stout. Until the Michigan State game, the Buckeyes had been hot and cold in the running game, often dependent on whether Miller could wend his way through the defense.
Warinner sees the line turning the corner, much like Nebraska's defensive line has turned a corner in recent weeks against the run.
“They're really physical,” Warinner said Monday. “They're starting to understand what we want in a spread offense.”
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