COLUMBUS — Three years ago when Ohio State won the national championship in the first year of the College Football Playoff one of the biggest reasons was the development of its offensive line.
Taylor Decker, Pat Elflein, Jacoby Boren, Darryl Baldwin and Billy Price opened holes and Ezekiel Elliott ran through them, especially in the second half of the season. The longer the season went, the better the line played and the better the Buckeyes’ running game looked.
It might be a stretch to compare this year’s offensive line to that group. But there is no doubt the offensive line and making running backs Mike Weber and J.K. Dobbins a bigger part of the offense have been a big part of Ohio State’s dominance of Michigan State and Illinois after the unexpected embarrassment at Iowa two weeks ago.
After Saturday’s 52-14 win over Illinois, OSU coach Urban Meyer called the offensive line “the most improved unit on our team.”
“It was not the strength of our team a year ago. It’s the strength of our team right now,” he said.
Offensive tackle Jamarco Jones says he has seen the growth Meyer was talking about.
“I think we’re just coming together and we’re getting stronger and stronger every week. It’s just a testament to our practice habits. We’re getting close as a unit and it shows on the field,” he said.
“We went through a lot of struggles as a unit. All the criticism and stuff we faced last season brought us closer together in the offseason. I think that’s showing now.”
Asked about comparisons to the 2014 offensive line, he said, “We’re just trying to be the best 2017 line we can be. We’re just trying to go out there and do the best we can and win ballgames.”
Along with the line’s improvement, running back Mike Weber has been a revelation in the last two weeks.
After running for 162 yards and breaking touchdown runs of 82 yards and 47 yards last week, he rushed for 108 yards Saturday, including a 47-yard touchdown run.
Price said, “I will continue to tell you if we get the running game going everything else opens up. It’s a huge responsibility as an offensive line. We take a lot of pride in that.
The offense as a whole has developed, I think that’s why you see the offensive line go out there with confidence,” he said.
All week leading up to the Illinois game, Meyer insisted the only thing he was focused on was beating the Illini.
But was it possible something he did in the second half on Saturday involving OSU’s offensive line and the rest of the offensive starters was done with an eye on how the College Football Playoff selection committee would view the Buckeyes?
Ohio State built a 38-0 lead by a little over halfway through the second quarter. When Illinois scored after a fumble by back-up quarterback Dwayne Haskins to cut the lead to 38-7 early in the third quarter, Meyer sent the first-team offense back into the game.
Jones and Price were among the Buckeyes surprised to be called back into action.
“I was not taped up. What was it, 38-0, and at that point I thought I was done,” Price said. “But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. Coach is boss.”
Jones said, “I wasn’t taped up either. I wasn’t really prepared, either. Once you get out there you don’t really think about it too much. It’s just a weird feeling because as a lineman you’re always taped up. But it’s part of the game, you always have to be ready when things happen and you have to go back in there.”
The hope at Ohio State is that the offensive line and the running game will be as ready this Saturday at Michigan and the Saturday after that in the Big Ten championship game against Wisconsin as they have been the last two games.
Reach Jim Naveau at 567-242-0414 or on Twitter at @Lima_Naveau.