It’s usually a good thing when an offensive line isn’t being talked about much.
That’s been the case for Ohio State’s offensive line this season.
While Ohio State’s defensive line and running backs have been hyped, and just about every other Ohio State unit has drawn consternation from Buckeyes fans, the play of Ohio State’s offensive line has seemingly flown under the radar.
Ohio State’s offensive line deserves more attention, though, because it has quietly been one of the Buckeyes’ biggest strengths this year.
The strength of Ohio State’s offensive line was never more clear than it was on Saturday against Michigan State, when the front five did not allow a single sack while leading the way for the Buckeyes to run for 335 yards, against a defense that had held opponents to 87 rushing yards per game and averaged more than 2.4 sacks per game in its first nine games.
While Mike Weber was named Big Ten co-offensive player of the week for rushing for 162 yards, and J.K. Dobbins also rightfully earned praise after running for 128 yards, Ohio State’s offensive line played just as much of a role, if not the biggest role, in the success of the Buckeyes’ ground game.
To see examples of that, you can look at Weber’s two touchdown runs from Saturday’s game. On his first, from 47 yards out, Ohio State center Billy Price picked up blocks on two separate defenders – while left guard Michael Jordan, right guard Demetrius Knox and right tackle Isaiah Prince also handled their men – to spring Weber into open space up the middle, allowing him to use his speed to do the rest of the work.
On Weber’s second touchdown run, from 82 yards out, Jordan made a key block switch to pick up a free linebacker in the middle and bulldozed him into the ground, again springing Weber into daylight to run all the way to the end zone.
According to Pro Football Focus, only 18 of Weber’s 162 rushing yards against Michigan State came after contact, while only 13 of quarterback J.T. Barrett’s 55 rushing yards came after contact – again, a testament to the offensive linemen for sticking their blocks and giving their ballcarriers clear running lanes.
The Ohio State offensive line was so impressive in run blocking today that the rushing attack of J.T. Barrett & Mike Weber, who gained 217 combined, only needed 31 yards after contact to do so. pic.twitter.com/pG426P3NeI
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) November 11, 2017
Ohio State's offensive linemen themselves say they aren't worried about getting outside recognition, because performances like Saturday's 48-3 win over the Spartans are satisfaction enough.
"We don't have to get all the attention," Knox said. "At the end of the day, when we look up there at the scoreboard, see the rushing yards, that's all you want."
The runners who have benefited from the play of that offensive line, however, have made it clear that the performance of the blockers in front of them has not been lost on them.
Dobbins, who became the third true freshman in Ohio State history to rush for 1,000 yards in a season on Saturday, expressed his gratitude to his offensive line on Twitter for its role in helping him achieve that milestone.
Just want to say thanks to my big boys up front for getting me to 1,000! Love yall boys pic.twitter.com/N7bnN6C5rn
— Jk dobbins (@Jkdobbins22) November 12, 2017
Ohio State’s offensive line has done an excellent job opening holes in the running game all season, as the Buckeyes are averaging 6.1 yards per carry – the fourth-best average in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision. Yet the offensive line has also performed consistently well in pass protection, allowing only 1.5 sacks per game while attempting 35.3 passes per game – a significant improvement over 2016, when Ohio State allowed 2.15 sacks per game while attempting 31.5 passer per game.
The offensive line wasn’t necessarily expected to be one of Ohio State’s strengths coming into the season. Price was expected to be as dominant as he has been at center, and Jamarco Jones was expected to be strong at left tackle. Major questions, however, lingered about the right side of the offensive line. Right tackle Isaiah Prince was a liability in pass protection in 2016, while the right guard position battle was wide open going into fall camp.
That said, Prince has shown tremendous improvement as a pass blocker this season, emerging as a strength instead of being a weakness. While the Buckeyes are on their second right guard of the season, as Branden Bowen went down with a season-ending injury in October, Knox has proven to be a more than capable replacement. Jones has been even better than expected, especially in the passing game, and Jordan has also played better with a year of experience under his belt.
Ohio State coach Urban Meyer credits his offensive line coach, Greg Studrawa, with leading the growth of that unit over the course of the season.
"They're much improved," Meyer said Monday. "I think Coach Stud's done a wonderful job with them."
Strong offensive line play doesn’t garner as much attention as the exploits of skill-position players like Barrett, Dobbins and Weber, but that doesn’t make it any less important. To the contrary, Meyer has repeatedly said that he believes strong offensive line play is one of the keys to being a championship team.
"We are an offensive line-driven program," Meyer said on Sept. 25. "If your offensive line becomes the best in the conference, you're probably going to win the conference."
Seven weeks later, Ohio State’s offensive line has made a legitimate case for being the Big Ten’s best, and if the Buckeyes can win their next two games against Illinois and Michigan, they’ll secure a chance to play for a conference title against Wisconsin in the Big Ten Championship Game.
As the Buckeyes make their push for a Big Ten title and potentially arc back into the College Football Playoff conversation, Ohio State will need its offensive line to continue building upon its impressive play and be at its best down the stretch – much like its 2014 offensive line, which was dominant in the final games of that season as the Buckeyes won the first-ever College Football Playoff.
Meyer isn’t ready to say that this year’s offensive line is at the same level as his 2014 offensive line; that’s a conversation that will need to be revisited after the season is over, he said Monday. Meyer still has one major concern with his offensive line, that being depth, as the Buckeyes do not appear well-positioned to absorb any additional injuries up front.
"Not even close," Meyer said last week when asked if Ohio State’s offensive line depth was where he wanted it to be.
Overall, though, Meyer has liked what he has seen from his offensive line as the 8-2 Buckeyes prepare to play their 11th game of the season on Saturday.
"We're moving in the right direction," Meyer said.