Unlike when Ohio State left Lucas Oil Stadium with BCS Championship hopes rejected in a disappointing 34-24 loss at the end of last season, the only cold pizza to be consumed this time around would be left for the Badgers following a 59-0 drubbing. Well, the Badgers and a terribly ironic OSU linebacker Joe Burger (on Twitter @JBurgs37 ):
Well played Mr. Burger, well played.
With the Big Ten Championship finally in tow, Urban Meyer’s team faced one big question: would that effort be enough to vault the Buckeyes into the first-ever 4 team College Football Playoff? The answer on Sunday became a definitive yes, which set up a showdown with top ranked Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.
Now another question comes to mind for these Buckeyes: how exactly did Ohio State dominate the Badgers so thoroughly, and is that a piece of magic that can somehow be re-created in the game against Alabama?
The answer to the first part of this question is simple, although surprising given how dominant Wisconsin had been all season along the trenches. Ohio State’s offensive and defensive lines simply pushed around Wisconsin linemen all night long, frequently collapsing the offensive pocket and running lanes when Wisconsin had the ball, while keeping a third-string quarterback largely unpressured when OSU had the ball.
If a replay of this game comes on television in the next two weeks, just pay close attention to the line of scrimmage and watch the Ohio State linemen. It was a true clinic, and one that has to be credited mostly to the development efforts of Larry Johnson on the defensive side and Ed Warinner on the offensive side.
Considering the shambles the offensive line was in when Ohio State suffered the loss to Virginia Tech in September and the loss of Noah Spence on the defensive line this season, the work these coaches have done is nothing short of extraordinary.
In games against teams like Wisconsin, the battle will always be won up front in those trenches. That was proven true once again Saturday night. Unlike Wisconsin’s west division rivals, Ohio State found a way to totally dominate the Badgers at what that team does best, line play.
Certainly the biggest back-breaking play on defense came when Joey Bosa returned a Melvin Gordon fumble for a touchdown with less than a minute left in the half, which put Ohio State up 38-0. However, the big stars of the game were the interior defensive linemen Michael Bennett (who was wearing Kosta Karageorge’s number to honor their tragically-lost teammate) and Adolphus Washington.
Bennett and Washington jammed up the line of scrimmage so badly that Melvin Gordon could not find a running lane other than to bounce it outside. With Bosa and the linebackers holding the edge well, Gordon was doomed to finish with a poor night (76 yards and 2.9 yards per carry).
Can this richly talented defensive line cause the same problems against the Alabama offensive line? The Wisconsin offensive line clocks in at about an average of 320 pounds and 6’5″ (the best specimen of which is Rob Havenstein, who is 6’8″ and 327 pounds). Alabama’s offensive line rotation carries about the same body frame and a little lighter weight, but more overall athleticism.
That athleticism could slow down the incredible rushes up the middle generated by the interior defensive linemen for OSU against Wisconsin. However, it seems unlikely that Ohio State will be knocked off the line of scrimmage by this unit, which means at worst, the line of scrimmage will be an even draw when Alabama has the ball. That will once again mean talented and speedy players like T.J. Yeldon, in this case, have to be contained by defensive ends and linebackers on the edges to avoid any explosive plays. That’s a tough assignment, but doable with the current Buckeye defense.
Although the pass rush was not as critical as the run stopping against Wisconsin, OSU will need to be its usual self in making a top level pass rush against Blake Sims, who is leaps and bounds better than Joel Stave (and having Heisman candidate WR Amari Cooper doesn’t hurt). Expect some big plays from the OSU defensive line even against the supposedly better talent up front for Alabama. If Wisconsin can be manhandled by this defensive line, so too can a similarly-sized Crimson Tide offensive line.
For the offensive line, the answer may not be so favorable in the Sugar Bowl.
While Wisconsin had developed some new starters up front this season who average 270 pounds and 6’2″, Alabama comes into this game with a two-deep of defensive linemen averaging 6’4″ and well over 300 pounds. That’s a lot more muscle than Ohio State has been accustomed to seeing in Big Ten play, which will make it difficult to keep the pocket and running lanes clean all game against the Crimson Tide.
Another big difference is that while Wisconsin’s defensive backfield allowed Cardale Jones and his wide receivers to grab deep jump balls for big plays, Alabama will likely shut those plays down more often. That will force Jones to actually prove he can make two or three reads quickly before getting rid of the ball or taking off as a runner, which is not what Wisconsin forced him to do on Saturday. Furthermore, that good coverage forces the offensive line to hold blocks for longer periods of time, a difficult task.
Thus, the dominance against Wisconsin was established by Ohio State’s offensive and defensive line play. Against Alabama, the defensive line will likely continue to do well, but the offensive line could be in for its hardest day since the Virginia Tech game.
However, performances like the one Saturday night prove that Ohio State will hold its own in the trenches against Alabama. That will at least give Ohio State a legitimate shot to compete to win that game. Which is great news, for those cheering for the Big Ten or against the SEC.