Much of Saturday’s game between No. 9 Ohio State and Michigan will come down to the Buckeyes’ offense going against the Wolverines’ defense.
That key to determining which team will win the matchup will be found up front.
Ohio State’s offensive line has progressively improved throughout the season and has been a major factor in the Buckeyes’ ability to run the ball well and protect quarterback J.T. Barrett in the pocket. On the flip side, Michigan’s defensive line has been nearly unstoppable the entire season and has helped put the Wolverines’ defense in the top 10 for team sacks and tackles for loss.
“It’s physical as can be, going against a team like the Team Up North and having those big guys up front,” redshirt senior center Billy Price said Tuesday. “They’re known for disruption and attacking the ball and being very aggressive up front. Put a man on a man on the front seven, and whoever wins the line of scrimmage is usually the people who win the game.”
For an offense like Ohio State’s that lately has leaned so heavily on its running backs for production, the offensive line will have to do its part up front to open up holes in a seemingly irrepressible defensive front.
“We are at Ohio State, we are a run-first type of team,” Barrett said Tuesday. “We get the offensive line rolling off the ball. That gets everything clicking as far as what we are trying to do.”
For Ohio State to be able to run the ball, it must win the battle against the opposing interior linemen. Michigan boasts one of the most dominant defensive tackles in college football with Maurice Hurst. The senior defensive lineman has 13 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, and a forced fumble.
Hurst is joined on the front by sophomore defensive end Rashan Gary, the former No. 1-rated recruit in the country. Gary has also turned in a strong season with 7.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
Squaring off against Hurst, Gary and a rotating group of linebackers will be a challenge for Ohio State’s interior offensive linemen, but Price said those players can be slowed down the same way the Buckeye line has dealt with other defensive fronts.
“It’s still put a man on a man, go out there and block them and execute and have fun. That’s what it comes down to,” Price said. “They’re just as talented as our guys on our side of the defensive line. You look at those guys and you evaluate their talent and evaluate what they’re good and bad at and your job is to block them no matter what.”
That vaunted group of interior defensive linemen will take on a group of inside offensive linemen that entered the season with more questions than answers.
While Price was expected to provide stability right up the middle, sophomore left guard Michael Jordan was coming off an inconsistent freshman campaign and the right guard starter was a mystery until the opening snap against Indiana when Branden Bowen took the field. Bowen suffered a torn ACL in the game against Maryland and was replaced by Demetrius Knox, reopening questions about the position.
Knox has seemingly transitioned flawlessly into the starting right guard spot.
“I think the biggest thing with [Knox] is feeling more comfortable and having a couple more games instead of it just being one game – particularly talking about Clemson,” Price said. “He was just thrown into the fire like, hey, you’ve got to go now. So him having that first game and being able to grow around us and continue to build confidence in the offense itself and his ability to get the job done, it’s huge.”
Knox has not been the only lineman getting the job done this season. The entire offensive line has progressively improved throughout the season and has been one of the driving factors behind Ohio State’s offensive success.
The Buckeye line has had all season to prepare for Saturday’s game. Now, the game is nearly here. And if the season trend continues against Michigan, Barrett should again receive the protection he needs, and the running backs should have sizable running lanes.
“I was feeling that way for some time now, being able to roll off the ball and establish a new line of scrimmage, driving defensive linemen into linebackers, that sort of thing,” Barrett said. “That is what has happened throughout this year.”